Medical discoveries

My most recent trip to South Africa was significantly focused on medical things. Having fallen ill on arrival followed by three days in bed, I eventually visited a doctor as I was due to record an interview on the Versailles talks and SA with Classic FM with no voice. The day of the doctor visit, a colleague had commented that I was no longer sounding like a frog but rather like a bullfrog. Miraculously, having seen the doctor at 4.35pm on Wednesday, I was able to speak, and feel human, by 12.30pm the following day when the recording was scheduled.

Getting into the SANDF archive in its new location in Irene and delving into things medical made me wonder how the chaps out in the bush during WW1 suffering from malaria and pneumonia managed to get themselves to medical support as they did. How medical treatments have developed in so many ways(!), yet remain the same in others. A trip through a game park in Limpopo Province highlighted the use of the Buffalo Thorn for medicinal purposes and cleaning teeth.

On the last day of my last trip to the ‘old’ SANDF Doc Centre, we (myself and an archive colleague) discovered some medical files which apeared untouched since being filed in the 1970s. This trip we worked out how they linked together. I was able to discover some useful material on General Sir Jaap van Deventer for my talk (more in due course) and a young academic can develop some case studies for his MA dissertation on the Cape Corps as a result. This will also help provide supporting evidence and documentation for the GWAA Medical project which is focusing on the Pike Reports (context and composition added since last related post).

For those interested, the type of information contained on the Medical Cards can be seen here. Two records have additional information from the medical reports as an initial example of how the medical boards related for one person. A sample of information contained on the Death Registers for the EANLC (East African Native Labour Corps) recruited in South Africa promises further insights into those who supported the fighting forces. These records as well as the Catalogue listings will continue to be updated as time permits.

Oh for a doctor!

The topic of medicine in the First World War seems to be very popular in 2017, and it just happens to be a theme GWAA is focusing on too, although when a few of us started looking at it, there wasn’t so much happening generally – one of those interesting coincidences.

Something which struck me when reading Gregg Adams’ King’s African Rifles Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 (Osprey 1916) was the role of fire and its impact on fighting. He quotes Mzee Ali (Bror McDonnel) in this regard which surprisingly passed me by when I read the book – I was focusing on other themes at the time. What is striking about the role of fire and the description given is that I don’t recall having read about doctors treating burns, or burns being listed on the catalogue of reasons men were evacuated by hospital ship to South Africa between 1916 and 1917 listed in the Appendices to the Pike Report (WO 141/31).

In On Call in Africa (NP Jewell), we read of an ammunition store catching fire but not the bush fires. There is also reference in some sources to Smuts and Lettow-Vorbeck using scorched earth policy as a military tactic but this implies controlled fire and the devastating effect of this in terms of famine and starvation is recorded. But, the fires caused by weapons firing and sudden sparks turning into flames is not a feature in memoirs and diaries. Snakes get more of a mention, as do attacks by bees.

Were many lives lost to these fires? If so, ow were they recorded and where? How did doctors deal with them especially when water was scarce? (Jewell mentions sterilizing hands with iodine as there was no water available). What was the impact of the hot African sun on the untreated burn injuries? (Pike notes that sunstroke/burn was not a major issue for the medical services). Why is there little record of burns in the medical records? I’m not sure we’ll get answers to many of these questions, but as noted by Adams, this was a significant difference of fighting in certain parts of Africa compared with the Western Front.

You can see the transcription of the Pike Report and other relevant medical links on the GWAA Medical Archive.