Artifacts from Historical Collections: World War I Photograph

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IMG_2627The Claude Moore Health Sciences Library is fortunate to have in its collections a number of photographs that document the experiences of University of Virginia students, alumni, and faculty during World War I. The image here is a part of one such photograph that hangs in the historical collections reading room. It shows members of Base Hospital 41, a University of Virginia-affiliated army hospital unit, posing for a portrait that was most likely shot in the spring of 1918.

Prior to and during World War I, medical school faculty across the United States grew concerned about the speed at which the U.S. Army was preparing its medical corps for the conflict. Some faculty took the initiative to address this problem. They worked with the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office to organize volunteer army hospitals using university resources and the contributions of charitable organizations. Staff and faculty at the University of Virginia, led by Associate Professor of Surgery William H. Goodwin, formed their own unit shortly after the U.S. entrance into the war in April, 1917. They recruited over 300 personnel, many of whom were drawn from the university’s large community of faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Organizers also secured full funding for the unit from the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks through the order’s leader and UVa alumnus, Fred Harper.

Base Hospital 41 would serve with distinction in a northern suburb of Paris, France from July, 1918 to January, 1919. During that period, the U.S. Army medical corps, as many U.S. physicians had feared before the war, was far too small to meet the needs of the nation’s soldiers. Army medical personnel in France worked above and beyond the call of duty to meet the challenges of this crisis. When it was formed, Base Hospital 41 had a capacity of between 1000 and 1500 beds and it was designed to primarily serve stabilized patients who needed between 1 and 16 weeks of treatment. However, as a result of the severe shortage of medical personnel, the unit increased its capacity to 3000 beds and admitted a much wider variety of patients, including emergency cases directly from the front, with little increase in the size of its personnel.

The image here is part of a larger official portrait that shows many of the enlisted men and medical officers who served in Base Hospital 41. At the center of the photograph is William H. Goodwin (second row, fifth from left), who not only led the organization of the unit, but also served as its Chief of Surgery. Seated to Goodwin’s left is Julian Cabell (second row, third from right). Cabell was a career military officer and an alumnus of the University of Virginia. When the unit was formally mobilized in the spring of 1918, the army assigned Cabell to be its commanding officer.

Absent from the official portrait are the 100 nurses who served with Base Hospital 41. During World War I, government policies allowed women nurses to serve in the Army Nurse Corps, but prohibited them from holding a rank or an official position within military units like Base Hospital 41. By the beginning of World War II, these prohibitions were largely reversed because of changing attitudes in U.S. society and in recognition of the achievements of women nurses during World War I. Some nurses in that conflict, like Base Hospital 41’s Chief Nurse Margaret Cowling, would earn military distinctions and awards for their service, despite holding no military rank.

African-American soldiers and physicians are also absent from the larger portrait. During World War I, federal policy required soldiers in the U.S. Army to serve in racially segregated units. This policy extended to medical units like Base Hospital 41, even though these units admitted patients from all races and nationalities. Racial segregation in the U.S. Army would end decades later with the issuance of Executive Order 9981 and the outbreak of another conflict, the Korean War.

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