A Veterans Day Salute

The following commentary was written by District 9 Trustee Robert Zimmerman, MD, PhD for the November edition of the Journal. 

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, igniting World War I. The U.S. formally entered the global conflict in April of 1917. As American troops were dispatched to the front lines in the global theater, obvious harm confronted them. The U.S. Army Medical Corps responded to and deployed to meet this need. Originally established by the Continental Congress in July 1775, it was called the Medical Department. The need for trained medical personnel within the military expanded to the point after the War of 1812 that the first Army “medical school” was proposed and eventually founded in 1893. This program would go on to serve as the origin for today’s Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. In 1814, surgeons (the term historically used for all military doctors) in the Medical Department were the first to track and report meteorological conditions, and this systematic reporting of weather data would be the eventual birth of the U.S. Meteorological Service. The Army Medical Corps was officially designated by Congress in 1908 and became formally born out of this patriotic necessity to support America’s fighting youth.

Many of our esteemed forefathers of medicine swelled with national pride and rose to support the troops and their country’s war efforts by providing medical assistance through the Army Medical Corp stateside, in various base hospitals along the front lines, and in casualty clearing stations. Many of their names are synonymous with the American history of our field, though little is known to us of their service during World War I. The following are a couple of perfect examples.

William Osler, MD, (then enjoying retirement in Oxford, England), is often referred to as the “the father of American medicine,” and his wife, Lady Osler, assisted in organizing military hospitals, patient care, and assistance with the Red Cross. Their son, Edward Revere, joined the British Royal Field Artillery’s 59th
Brigade. Revere was gravely wounded when a German shell impacted close to him, impaling his chest
and abdomen with shrapnel and leaving severe wounds. The staff at many of the base hospitals were physicians from top stateside medical schools who were serving their country abroad, “trying to do their
bit.’’ The staff at the hospital where Revere was taken summoned Drs. Harvey Cushing and George Crile
to operate on Revere. Despite their best efforts, Dr. William and Lady Osler paid the undoubted ultimate
price of war when their only child died several days later.

Bacteria was perhaps the biggest foe that any army of this period had to confront, as civilization would not see the utilization of penicillin until 1942 during the era of World War II. London-born physician Henry Dakin rose to the challenge and collaborated with a French-born physician living in the U.S. by the name of Alexis Carrel. Dr. Dakin had developed a hypochlorite solution; he found it to be minimally irritating and retaining antiseptic properties but with a short period of activity requiring instillation therapy. The two  physicians met while in New York and later traveled together to the war-zone to a Rockefeller Foundation-supported hospital and research center. Combining with Dr. Carrel’s knowledge of early wound  debridement and surgical techniques and wound irrigation application, the two are credited
with techniques that cleansed and healed many wounds with the then-called Carrel-Dakin wound cleansing irrigation system. Dr. Carrel went on to become active in transplant and culture techniques,
and he had a growing interest in human eugenics. Sadly, when World War II broke out, he returned to
France only to die in custody as a German sympathizer when the Allies liberated France. Thereafter,
Carrel’s name was dropped from the lifesaving wound cleansing solution that served as a mainstay
for wound care for over 100 years and is still used today, commonly referred to as Dakin’s solution.

Dakin’s solution and wound irrigation was used heavily, especially during the last several months of the First World War as the Allied forces moved to negate all of Germany’s advances. The theory was to pummel the Germans and then let the diplomats talk out a peace agreement. Representatives from Germany met with the Allies from Nov. 8 to Nov. 11 to discuss an armistice; however, continued fighting
right up until the last minute of a cease fire resulted in close to 7,000 more deaths and nearly 15,000 more
wounded on both sides. This brought the total military casualty count of human history’s bloodiest conflict to nearly 8.5 million people.

The signing of the peace agreement with the Treaty of Versailles marked 11 a.m. of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 as the official end of the First World War (eerily, the license plate of the car that Archduke Ferdinand was riding in when he was assassinated starting the war was A111118). An American medical officer, Stanhope Bayne-Jones, noted in a letter to his sister the surreal moment when the fighting had ceased: “Our guns had stopped and no shells were coming on us. It seemed mysterious, queer,
unbelievable. All the men knew what the silence meant but nobody shouted or threw his hat in the air.”

In 1919, President Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day, honoring all those who served in World War I. It became a permanent federal holiday in 1926. In 1954, the 83rd U.S. Congress officially changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day to recognize and honor American veterans of all wars. For a brief number of years starting in 1971, Veterans Day was moved to the fourth Monday in October. It later returned to its original date by President Gerald Ford beginning in 1978.

Veterans Day is set aside to honor and thank living and deceased veterans who have served honorably in the military – during wartime and peacetime. Veterans Day should not be confused with Memorial Day, through which we honor those that have paid the greatest sacrifice for our country – that is, dying in service to their country.

We will again annually recognize all those who have served our country on November 11, 2019, the 101st anniversary of the end of World War I. Pause for a moment to reflect on the role of those who came before us and the great sacrifices they made to provide us with the freedoms we cherish within our democracy. Take time to thank colleagues, family members, neighbors, patients, staff and administrators, and anyone else you may encounter this month who served on behalf of our great United States of America. Your service is greatly appreciated, and we salute you!