Kill or cure?

1 September 2010

 Oil painting of a red cross medic helping a soldier
[object Object]

The Red Cross in the trenches (detail), by Cyrus Cuneo

As our War and Medicine exhibition in 2009 showed, advances in weaponry designed to harm human bodies have always been accompanied by innovations in techniques to heal them. We’ve revisited some of the objects and works from that exhibition and added some more in our new Explore section Military Medicine.

The relationship between fighting and curing has been present since some of the earliest developments in medicine, as this medieval drawing of an arrow wound from the margins of an instructional medical book shows. Battlefield surgery is a matter of life and death, of limb amputation and mortal infection, as seen in this sketch by Charles Bell; but the treatment of facial injuries received in war have also spurred advances in plastic surgery. And sometimes all that medicine can offer is diagnosis, as in this section of a lung cell taken from a soldier poisoned by phosgene gas.

World War I saw a sudden explosion in the numbers of civilian men inducted into the military. Before the fighting, doctors’ role was to test the fitness of men for war (and the physical condition of the British fighting man in the1910s was often poor, concern for which propelled the development of the nascent welfare state). War medicine was not merely a private or surgical matter, though: medics made a bid for the public imagination from advertisements for the Red Cross to appeals for the reintegration of disabled veterans into civilian society

War Neuroses, made during World War I, shows for the first time the disturbing mental effects of shell shock, and advances in understanding its underlying causes. Soldiers’ exposure to the intense vibration and noise of heavy artillery causes physical symptoms ranging from uncontrollable spasms to amnesia. Though the doctors at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Netley where the film was made emphasise rapid recovery and show concern for the soldiers’ well-being, there’s something chilling about the mock battle fought at the end of the film, and the implied endless cycle of killing and curing.

Looking at contemporary wars, artist David Cotterrell reflects on the calmness and extraordinarily well-planned route through medical care to the military hospital at Camp Bastion for soldiers with trauma wounds. Cotterrell’s struggle to understand the context of the casualties led him further into the field with commandos in Helmand province. At the other end of the medical spectrum, nurse Vicky Treacy discusses working for Médecins Sans Frontières in Darfur, Sudan, where war precludes access to even basic healthcare for civilians, and where visa troubles for other MSF staff at one point left her the only medic on the ground at her clinic.

As long as we continue to fight wars, we will need military medicine, not only for soldiers, but also civilians. The developments in medicine that we receive in turn, sometimes seem to have been bought at a high price indeed.