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WWI Primary Resource Guide: The medical history of WWI

This guide aims to highlight a range of key primary resources relevant to the British experience of WWI.
Subjects: History - British

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The medical history of WWI

Wellcome Library, Royal Army Medical Corps Muniment Collection

For material relating to the medical history of WWI, it is advisable to pay a visit to the Wellcome Library, London, which provides resources detailing medical practices, treatments and developments during the war. Among other important items, the library contains the Royal Army Medical Corps Muniment Collection; a major collection on military medicine, which contains reports, diaries, memoirs, photographs and memorabilia. The substantial amount of material indexed under ‘First World War’ covers the Balkan Front, the Dardanelles, East Africa, France and Flanders, the Home Front, India, Italy, Malta, Mesopotamia and the Middle East, Russia, Serbia and South West Africa, as well as Prisoners of War, and also includes general material and photographs.  

Researchers can find a volume of memoirs, medical diaries and research papers at the Wellcome Library, touching on topics as varied as clinical assessment, surgery, nutrition, wound infection and malaria. The papers of Professor Thomas Renton Elliott, for example, contain information on gas poisoning, trench foot and viruses, whilst files from the British Medical Association examine dietary requirements and the control of tuberculosis during wartime.

The library has produced 'War, Medicine and Health, World War I', a useful guide to the archive and manuscript sources available for consultation. The guide can be consulted here.

Locally held resources: The Wellcome Unit

Those interested in the medical history of WWI may wish to consult the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, part of the Bodleian Libraries. The Wellcome Unit is a specialist reference library; its holdings comprise around 7,500 monographs, serials and theses on diverse topics, including UK public health administration, hospitals, infectious diseases and advances in medicine. Whilst the bulk of material has been published more recently, the collections are nonetheless of great relevance, and may serve to direct researchers towards further resources. Included are texts on wartime surgery and military medicine on the Western Front, as well as accounts of field hospitals and nursing.

IWM, 'British Army Ambulance Drivers'

Ambulance drivers played a key part in WWI, whether employed by the British Army, the Red Cross or other medical organisations. Often, men who wished to contribute to the war effort without engaging in direct combat were assigned as ambulance drivers, and played a vital role in retrieving wounded troops from the Front. This brief scene, among others available via the IWM Collections and Research pages, depicts British Army drivers racing to their vehicles before embarking on duty.

University of Manchester, diaries of Daniel Dougal

Special Collections at the University of Manchester hold the personal diaries of Daniel Dougal, who served as an army doctor on the Western Front during WWI. Dougal rose to become Deputy Assistant Director of Medical Services, 34th Division of the British Army, and his diaries provide important information on the operation of Army medical services, as well as behind the scenes glimpses into the life of an RAMC officer on active service. The diaries are typed and also include some illustrations and maps. 

British Library, The Dome Hospital, Brighton

Buildings throughout Britain were requisitioned for medical use during WWI. The photo below, part of a series recording the contribution of Indian soldiers to the Allied war effort, provides an example of this. It depicts The Dome Hospital in Brighton, which had 680 beds for wounded soldiers. Several buildings in Brighton were converted into hospitals during this period, to treat the thousands of Indian soldiers injured in France.

The British Library

British Red Cross, museum and archives

Whilst their primary role was to help the naval and military medical services treat sick and wounded sailors and soldiers, during WWI the British Red Cross did everything from nursing and air raid duty to searching for missing people and transporting the injured. At the British Red Cross museum and archives, visitors can view a series of extensive indexes recording the service details of personnel working during the war. Record cards may include the dates of service, the nature of the duties performed, the detachment the individual belonged to, the institutions and places where the individual served, and any honours that may have been awarded. In addition, there are indexes for personnel who served in military hospitals, who were trained nurses, and who received the war medal.

Researchers may also wish to consult the historical reference library on site, which contains lists of all auxiliary home hospitals in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland under the Joint War Committee during the First World War. The auxiliary hospitals were provided by the Red Cross as stepping stones for wounded servicemen between general hospitals and the return home.

For those interested in specific institutions, limited information about selected hospitals is also held within the historical library on site. In addition, it is worth noting that the Hospital Records (HOSPREC) database contains information on the existence and location of the records of hospitals in the UK.

British Library, Indian Military Depot Hospital

For a glimpse of military hospital record keeping during WWI, it is possible to consult the digitised admission and discharge books of the Indian Military Depot Hospital at Milford-on-Sea, Hampshire (1914-16) via the British Library website. The books include instructions for staff regarding efficient record keeping, along with brief details of the injuries soldiers were being treated for, and the result of treatment given. It is notable that a great many patients were discharged and returned to active duty in France.