Object of the month: Studying medicine in a tent

J.H. Lobley, Anatomy Lessons at St. Dunstan’s, 1917. Wellcome Images

J H Lobley, Anatomy Lessons at St. Dunstan’s, 1917. Wellcome Images

This month’s object shows an anatomy lesson in an unorthodox setting. Alyson Mercer looks at the sometimes incongruous places in which First World War soldiers were brought to convalesce.

The First World War brought with it many challenges for Britain, not least in the field of medicine. As the years rolled on (for a conflict that was supposed to be ‘over by Christmas’), the number of casualties returning to the country far exceeded the resources then in place. This need for more space to house convalescent soldiers resulted in many non-traditional venues being transformed into hospitals.

Fans of the television programme Downton Abbey will recognize this transformation; the Earl of Grantham supported the suggestion to turn his manor into a convalescent home after the village hospital was unable to cope with the influx of wounded soldiers arriving from the front lines. In reality, this sensational storyline does not differ greatly from the true history of the location. Almina, the fifth Countess of Carnarvon, did much the same thing at the real ‘Downton Abbey’ (otherwise known as Highclere Castle) from September 1914 until 1922.

Brighton Pavilion is another example of this type of transformation, as highlighted in our 2009 exhibition ‘War and Medicine’. Wounded members of the Indian Army were transported to this seaside town, already renowned as a health resort and leisure destination, to recover from injuries sustained while fighting. The Pavilion was closed to the public in November 1914 and was converted into a 724-bed hospital in less than one week. Although both of these are quite grand examples, smaller venues such as pubs, hotels and various other types of buildings were transformed into places to care for the war wounded once they arrived in Britain.

The painting above, one of many in Wellcome’s collection of documentary representations of wartime medicine, depicts another such location. St Dunstan’s Hostel for Blinded Military Personnel and Soldiers was situated on the site now occupied by Winfield House in Regent’s Park. In this case, we are privy to viewing male and female medical ancillaries being given a demonstration on the insertion of the head of the femur into the hip joint at the acetabulum.

This scene was captured by official war artist to the Royal Army Medical Corps, John Hodgson Lobley (1879–1954). During his time recording the events in which the RAMC was involved, Lobley produced 120 works, as well as many others, including cliff top scenes around Poole. Thirty-three of his wartime paintings are held by the Imperial War Museum and can be viewed on their Collections and Research online archive. Rather significantly, it was at this institution where the collecting of different material documenting the war took place, in addition to the private collecting, such as that undertaken by Henry Wellcome. While the gathering of material relating to the Great War was taking place, the government was also in the process of commissioning and purchasing works produced by various well-known artists of the time. This was a means of recording the conflict, in addition to serving a memorial function, much like the remit of the Imperial War Museum.

With the dawning of the Second World War, there was a need once again for non-traditional venues to open their doors to military personnel injured during combat. With this renewed requirement for spaces to act in non-traditional capacities, venues were used not only for providing care for the wounded but also for the billeting of personnel arriving from allied nations whose units were preparing for missions in Europe. One such location was the Wellcome Trust’s own Hinxton Hall (part of the Genome Campus, located south of Cambridge). This 18th-century Grade II listed building was owned by the Robinson family from 1920. Their two daughters, Rita and Laura, both served as army nurses during the First World War. They opened their home as a retreat for US airmen recovering from particularly harrowing missions to Europe, on leave from the nearby airbase at Duxford (now part of the Imperial War Museum).

The multitude of different venues briefly transformed into hospitals and care homes during both world wars serve to remind those interested in the study of wartime medicine of the significance space has in the allocation of resources, as well as the importance of ‘making do’ during difficult circumstances.

Alyson Mercer is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

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