A St. Louis Hospital Opened in France During World War I

  • WWI Field Hospital
    Base Hospital 21 patients were sometimes allowed to sit outside and get some sun. The hospital sponsored by Washington University School of Medicine was located outside Rouen, France during World War I. Photo courtesy Becker Medical Library.
  • Philip Skroska, an archivist in the visual and graphic archives at The Bernard Becker Medical Library, lays an American flag for exhibit at Base Hospital 21 in St. Louis on Friday, Feb, 16, 2018. This America flag flew at Base Hospital 21, an Army medical hospital that was run by what was then Barnes Hospital during World War I with volunteers from St. Louis. Photo by Austin Steele.

For nearly two years during World War I, a St. Louis hospital set up an outpost near the battlefields in France.

Dr. Fred Murphy, head of surgery at Washington University School of Medicine, realized the allies needed help when he volunteered at an American hospital in Paris in 1916 before the U.S. entered the war.

When he came back to St. Louis, Murphy recruited dozens of doctors, nurses, medical students and other personnel from the university and then-Barnes Hospital to form their own hospital to relieve British and French medical officers.

Soon after the U.S. declared war with Germany, the St. Louis medical team shipped out in May 1917, becoming some of the first Americans to reach the European war zone.

U.S. Army Base Hospital 21 was assigned to Rouen in the Normandy region of France as one of several hospitals formed by American medical schools to serve sick and injured soldiers and civilians.

The medical unit was segregated, with African-American doctors and nurses serving in separate clinics set up by the Army.

Some of the volunteers at the hospital were members of St. Louis' high society, including nurses Rachel Stix Michael, Mary Kennard Wallace and Julia Holmes Francis, daughter-in-law of David R. Francis, former St. Louis mayor, Missouri governor and U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Julia Stimson, then-chief nurse at Washington University, was promoted to head of nursing for the Red Cross after her service at Base Hospital 21.

Back in St. Louis, the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis and the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak strained an already depleted medical community.

"Even the people that stayed behind made a lot of sacrifices," said Philip Skroska, visual and graphic archivist at Washington University's Becker Medical Library, who will give a talk Thursday at a new exhibit featuring the hospital. The exhibit includes a surgeon's diary, an American flag donated to the unit by the French, a helmet, hot water bottle and dog tags.

Base Hospital 21's contributions to wartime medicine included a machine that allowed soldiers to receive X-rays on their stretchers upon arrival, Skroska said. The medical staff treated soldiers' burns and breathing issues caused by mustard gas and other airborne agents.

"It made every one of us feel that we wanted to ... get a gun and go out and fight," Dr. Walter Fischel wrote in a journal about the experience.

After the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice, the hospital continued to treat injured soldiers and ex-prisoners of war through January 1919. The hospital treated a total of 61,453 patients over 18 months. The volunteers returned to St. Louis that spring after a two-year deployment.

The volunteers did manage some fun, with the Scrap Iron Jazzerinos band, including St. Louisans Arshav Nushan on drums, Edwin Dakin on violin, Syl Horn on banjo and Clarence Koch on trumpet, entertaining the troops. The band continued with gigs in Europe after the war. 

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