Leeds Centre for Medical Humanities

An interdisciplinary collaboration between the Faculties of Arts and Medicine & Health at the University of Leeds

Medicine and WWI Workshop, 17-18 October, 2013

Report of the Medicine and the First World War in Europe Workshop
University of Leeds, 17th-18th October, 2013

Jessica Meyer, University of Leeds
(Conference Organiser)

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A workshop on the history of Medicine and the First World War in Europe was held at the University of Leeds on 17th and 18th October.  Sponsored by the Leeds Centre for Medical Humanities and Legacies of War, with additional funds provided by the Social History Society, the Society for the Social History of Medicine and the British Society for the History of Science, this international gathering attracted participants from France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Belgium, a range of UK universities and several organisations from across Leeds, including Leeds City Museums and Legacies of War research partner groups.  A total of 38 people attended across the two days, including 9 postgraduates and 7 early career researchers.

The Thursday comprised a full-day session of paper presentations and discussion.  The papers were divided thematically into four panels, Wounds and Wounding, Care-giving, Aftermath and Cultural Intersections.  They covered a range of topics, including the debates over the treatment of abdominal wounds in the French army medical service, the treatment of men suffering from psychological wounds in the Belgium army, a discussion of the significance of the Spanish ‘flu pandemic to understanding the war as global history and the role of alcohol in both sustaining and undermining morale in armies across Europe.  The experiences of doctors, nurses and stretcher bearers were all explored, as were the experiences of those they cared for.  The discussions that followed each panel covered a range of topics, including communications between medical caregivers of different nationalities, the importance of different types of source material, including statistical data, personal narratives and material culture, in accessing different facets of the history of medicine, and the role of space in defining care in wartime. Several key themes emerged over the course of the day, including space and geography, both actual and metaphorical, lines of care and evacuation and their disruption, and methods of accessing as-yet-unheard voices of both care-givers and cared for.  All these topics were pursued not only in the formal discussions among all participants, but also over tea, coffee and lunch during the breaks in the day.

On Friday, the half day session was made up of presentations by representatives from the University of Leeds’ Special Collections department, the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, and the Thackray Medical Museum on material available in their archive and plans for the centenary of the First World War beginning next year.  These presentations presented some very exciting questions for future exploration, including the importance of asepsis demonstrated in different types of cases for medical equipment and the development of medical technology as demonstrated through medical trade catalogues.  These presentations were supplemented by a small exhibition of material from the Liddle and Bamji Collections, both part of Special Collections, including documents, medical equipment and printed material such as hospital journals and medical training manuals.

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The final session of the workshop was an open discussion among all participants about the themes raised by the workshop and practical steps that might be taken to pursue the study of the history of medicine in the First World War in the future.  The importance of transnationalism was emphasised in this discussion, with a bias towards the stories of the Allies in general and the Anglophone nations in particular being noted, despite the efforts made to attract a variety of contributors. It was suggested that future meeting should encompass the histories of North America and British imperial nations, as well as other European nations not represented at this meeting.  There was also an opportunity to hear from three Legacies of War community partners who all spoke to the importance of local histories in the study of the history of medicine.  Finally, questions were raised about how to present the potentially distressing material used in the study of such a history to a wider audience, a subject that prompted considerable reflection on the methods used in commemorating the Holocaust around the world.

A number of practical suggestions emerged from this session, several of which are now being pursued.  It is proposed to develop an e-mail discussion list and a newsletter to allow participants to exchange ideas and publicise conferences, publications and opportunities for further research collaborations and co-productions.  It was suggested that a transnational bibliography of the field would also be useful.  Wendy Gagen has very kindly agreed to produce the newsletter, to be circulated three times a year, and to start to compile the bibliography based on contributor suggestions.  I am working to establish a discussion list and to develop the workshop website into a space for publishing material related to the group’s aims, including the newsletter and bibliography.  It is hoped that, in future, the website will become more interactive, including a discussion forum, and that further meetings will be held on the subject.  In the meantime, if anyone would like to join the discussion list which will be launching in the new year, please contact Jessica Meyer at j.k.meyerATeeds.ac.uk.

In conclusion, I would like to thank all the sponsors and funders, particularly the Centre for Medical Humanities, who made the workshop possible.  All the participants I have spoken to have been extremely positive about their experience and the potential for high-quality future research to develop from the event is high.

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