When Emory went to war

In 1917, when the U.S. Army Surgeon General William Gorgas asked for medical professionals to volunteer for the war effort, Emory doctors and nurses answered the call. The Atlanta recruits established the WWI Base Hospital 43 in Blois, France in 1918. It was known as the Emory Unit, because so many members were affiliated with the university.

Since volunteer medical units proved so successful in WWI, the unit was again called to service during WWII and operated the 43rd General Hospital.

If you’d like to learn more about this little-known part of Emory’s history, you can visit “When the Emory Unit Went to War,” an exhibit at Emory University’s Woodruff Health Sciences Center Library.

More than a year ago, the health sciences center realized that they had ample space to mount archival exhibits and bought cases. The first exhibit, “Medical Treasures at Emory,” which included a surgical kit used during the Civil War, successfully brought attention to the university’s archival collections.

“As we began brainstorming ideas for a second exhibit, we kept coming back to this story of the Emory medical unit,” said Clayton McGahee, archives specialist for the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, the Hugh F. McMillan Law Library and Emory Oxford College. “We had four or five boxes of photographs, administrative records, diaries, newspaper clippings and memorabilia. We knew we could tell a good story and one that the current generation of students most likely didn’t know about.”

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The WWI unit was led by Dr. E.C. Davis, co-founder of the Davis-Fischer Sanatorium that later became Crawford Long Hospital (now Emory University Hospital Midtown). “He had served as a surgeon during the Spanish American War,” said McGahee. “In all, 24 officers, 65 nurses, 154 enlisted personnel and six French civilians made up Base Hospital 43 in WWI. They operated a 500-bed hospital for six months that was usually overflowing, and treated more than 9000 patients in that time.”

During their days off, the doctors conducted seminars on what they were learning about the treatment of patients suffering from nerve (mustard) gas and chemical wounds.

On display are photos of the “Blue Birds,” as the nurses were called, taking care of patients in the hospital and other images from the unit, as well as history books about WWI.

“My favorite part of the exhibit is the case containing the chambray dress, white apron, medical pins and boots worn by nurse Leila Anderson,” said McGahee. “I couldn’t believe that her uniform was complete and in such good condition. We talked extensively with the preservation department in order to display it, because fabrics are fragile and can be problematic.” The exhibit also shows Anderson’s original scrapbook from the war. Visitors can turn the pages of a full scan of the book in a nearby kiosk.

Led by Dr. Daniel C. Elkin (first chair of the department of surgery) and later, Dr. Ira A Ferguson, the reactivated unit trained at Camp Livingston, Louisiana for a year and then served in Oran, Algeria, Naples, Italy and Southern France during WWII.

“It was a much more mobile unit and we have lots of pictures of them traveling in jeeps,” said McGahee. “The unit was strictly volunteer. I believe they received a military stipend while serving, and in most cases their jobs were kept for them, but they definitely sacrificed for their country. Most were away from their families for three years and when they arrived in France, their hospital was occupied by German doctors and nurses.”

McGahee has been pleased that the exhibit is drawing visitors and raising awareness about Emory’s history and archival holdings. “We have even had some descendants of original members of the unit visit and bring in items to show us,” he said.

The exhibit will run through March 2015. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center Library is located at 1462 Clifton Road.

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