Online Exhibits@Yale

Diseases at the Battlefield

The Great War was a major breaking point for the history of medicine. Before the war, information about infectious diseases was limited and public health was something relatively new. World War One marked the way into the understanding that infectious diseases are caused by microorganisms, which contributed to the development of preventive treatment such as vaccines and antimicrobial drugs. For instance, deaths from typhoid were significantly reduced during the Great War because of a newly-developed vaccine. However, the same approach was not sufficient to stop the outbreak of pandemic influenza as the virus was only identified way after the war.

Among the various infectious diseases that were spread during the Great War, there were many lice transmitted disease, as in the case of trench fever. This was a very popular disease during the war that affected all armies and medical personnel. Besides being highly contagious, its recovery time was lengthy. Poor hygienic conditions and lack of public awareness contributed to the transmission of these contagious diseases. Yet, the militarization of medical research contributed at the same time to the evolution and development of knowledge and prevention of these same diseases.

Medical Diseases of the War

Photographs illustrating war neuroses, part of the larger compendium of war diseases described in Arthur Hurst, Medical Diseases of the War, 1918.

Even as physicians and surgeons during the First World War were treating horrific wounds and addressing casualties of battle, they were also confronted with an array of diseases in the trenches and military camps which afflicted the soldiers and contributed significantly to the war's medical care and mortality rates.  As the conflict was still raging, physicians such as Sir Arthur Frederick Hurst (1879-1944) were recording and publishing observations on these diseases using firsthand experience as well as the research of contemporaries.  Hurst's text, Medical Diseases of the War, first appeared in 1917 and provides an invaluable record of these afflictions, even drawing on parallel experiences from the Boer War and American Civil War.  It proved so useful that the work was revised and reissued in the 1940s as a second world war erupted in Europe.

Diseases at the Battlefield