Fighting Fit: Exploring Military Medicine (1850-1950)



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Fighting Fit: Exploring Military Medicine (1850-1950)
The military has always had an intimate relationship with medicine. Doctors and nurses play a vital role in preparing soldiers for battle and treating them in the field. This panel will examine the role that medicine has played in the armed forces from 1850-1950.
Nineteenth Century
Medical Education and Good Wine: The formation of the army medical school and medical education in the British army in the latter 19th century
Many European countries had military medical schools in the late 18th and early 19th centuries but despite pressure from various circles to establish one, the British army did not. The Crimean war would change all that.
There were many commissions both during and after the war, which investigated the inadequacies of the Army Medical Department. Many of the commissions took place because of the insistence and persistence of Florence Nightingale.
One of the sub committees set up was ordered to investigate the establishment of a Practical Army Medical School and I will discuss the establishment of the school in 1860 after briefly discussing what medical education was available to the army doctor prior to that.
The paper will include the problems encountered when setting up of the school, the lack of equipment and adequate lecture theatres, the choice of professors and the various lectures made available to the students. I will include the attempts by the establishment to close the school in subsequent years and the fight by the Senate to justify its existence.
Included in the paper will be reference to the establishment of the army medical museum within the school, which in its day became a large and important zoological and anatomy museum.
The paper will end with the move of the school from the Royal Victoria Hospital Netley to London in 1902.
Captain Peter Starling MA, DHMSA, FRHistS

Director, Army Medical Services Museum

Keogh Barracks, Ash Vale, Aldershot
South African War
Great Expectations: The South African War and the

Reform of British Military Medicine
The South African War of 1899-1902 is widely regarded as important in debates over physical deterioration and civilian health in Britain but the war also proved to be a turning point for British military medicine. And yet, reform was not an inevitable consequence of the Army’s medical failures in South Africa. The Army’s performance was hampered by typhoid and the breakdown of arrangements for casualty evacuation, but these problems, by themselves, cannot explain the far-reaching reforms which occurred after the war. By comparison with many previous conflicts, the medical situation in South Africa was not particularly bad. The crucial difference was that the Army’s performance was judged by far higher standards than before.
This paper argues that the catalyst to reform came chiefly from public expectations of what the Army ought to provide in terms of health care for its troops. These expectations had grown markedly in the years prior to the war, as a result of falling civilian mortality and a vigorous campaign mounted by elements of the medical profession and military reformers. By the summer of 1900 it became clear that support for a large scale conflict could not be maintained without medical and sanitary provisions which were deemed adequate by the public, whose expectations had been raised by influential voices in the medical profession and other figures in public life. This marked the beginning of a new era in military medicine; one in which the efficacy of medical services was judged not only by manpower economy but by its ability to sustain public morale.
Professor Mark Harrison

Professor of the History of Medicine

Director of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine

University of Oxford


World War II
They passed me A1 fit, can you believe it?’: The British Army body and the military medical exam, 1939-1945
During the course of the Second World War Civilian Medical Boards examined over six million men in Britain in order to ascertain their suitability for military service. Focusing specifically on the British army, this paper explores what the military medical exam reveals about conceptions of health, fitness and the body between 1939 and 1945. In doing so it highlights the army body as a site of contestation as army professionals, civilian doctors and government officials often applied competing notions about what constituted ‘fitness for service’. These were often themselves unstable however as pressing manpower needs often rendered such notions negotiable and transitory. By drawing on their personal recollections this paper also considers the experiences of men who underwent this physical screening process. It looks at the ways that individuals thought about their own bodies and the ways in which they sought to manipulate them within the examination. For example, while some men sought to evade military duty by malingering or feigning illness, others who were eager to serve tried to conceal their disabilities in order to be passed as fit. The paper concludes that the army medical exam of 1939 to 1945 provides fresh perspectives on a range of historiographies, including the history of the body, military and medical history and the British experience of the Second World War.
Dr. Emma Reilly

Postdoctoral Research Assistant

Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare

School of Humanities

University of Strathclyde

The Korean War
Weathering the Storm: Commonwealth Combat Psychiatry in Korea (1950-1951)
In the past several decades, there has been increasing academic interest in the development of modern combat psychiatry. Research in this area has improved our understanding of war’s human impact and enriched our knowledge of twentieth century conflict. However, scholars have yet to address the Korean War (1950-1953), a conflict that resulted in nearly four million casualties. This paper examines the psychiatric care system in place for Commonwealth troops throughout the first year of hostilities. It evaluates the work of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC) and the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). The Canadians and their British counterparts were jointly responsible for the mental and physical well being of Commonwealth soldiers deployed to Korea. Throughout 1950-1951, combat operations were highly mobile and the medical services often struggled to keep pace with the movement of troops. In addition, medics had to contend with inhospitable terrain and a punishing climate. The paper assesses how psychiatrists responded to these challenges and explores how troops were treated for a variety of problems, such as combat fatigue and somatoform disorders. Moreover, it evaluates how successful psychiatrists were in returning soldiers to frontline units.
Kathleen Meghan Fitzpatrick

PhD Candidate



Department of War Studies

King’s College London


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