As the University of Cincinnati (UC) comes up on its bicentennial in 2019, it has other significant milestones to celebrate along the way. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the involvement of doctors, nurses and staff from Cincinnati General Hospital (now UC Medical Center) in the care of wounded soldiers during World War I (WWI).
As WWI spread across Europe in 1917, it became clear to the United States Army Medical Department that it was not prepared to provide adequate health care to potentially millions of soldiers on the battlefields. In response, the Army established the Affiliated Hospital Program (AHP), a partnership between the American Red Cross and major civilian hospitals to fund, staff and equip field hospitals to mobilize to treat those wounded in the war.
Here's how the New York Medical Journal reported on the hospitals in its Saturday, July 7, 1917 issue:
The Red Cross base hospitals are being organized at certain large civil hospitals and medical schools of recognized standing. They are composed of doctors and nurses who are accustomed to work together and already have the spirit of unity and organization. The first requirement for the organization of a base hospital is a parent institution, either a large civil hospital or a medical school, which can furnish the large professional staff and still have left a sufficient staff to carry on the work of the parent institution.
"The nature of the program is that an academic-centered hospital in a major city would recruit all the health care professionals that would staff a hospital,” says Richard Prior, DNP, associate professor of clinical nursing at the UC College of Nursing. Prior is collaborating with Kim Mullins, DNP, an assistant professor in the UC College of Nursing, on a research project about UC’s involvement in setting up Base Hospital No. 25. "It made sense for Cincinnati to be involved as Cincinnati General was an academic medical center,” he says.
The effort to bring Base Hospital No. 25 from an idea to a reality started in Cincinnati in the spring of 1917. The city of Cincinnati, like other cities in the AHP, raised $50,000 for supplies which the Red Cross then managed. A team of doctors and enlisted men assembled and trained at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio for about a month before shipping overseas to France.
The village of Allerey, about 180 miles southeast of Paris, was chosen as the site of the hospitals for a variety of reasons. The rural location was safely far from the fighting of WWI, and it was well served by roads and rail and had river access. Most of the patients who came to the hospitals from the battlefield were transported by train.
Base Hospital No. 25 was one of 10 hospitals tasked with setting up a 1,000 bed facility at Allerey. Construction began in February 1918, and the first patients started arriving in late July 1918. Only seven of the hospitals would wind up being built, each based on a standard footprint, fabricated off-site and then assembled on-site.
Eventually, Base Hospital No. 25 would employ 41 officers, 100 nurses, a dietitian, two technicians and three stenographers from Cincinnati General Hospital.
Those people often worked long hours, according to Mullins.
"Shifts were long, 12 to 14 hours a day,” says Mullins. "This was before the widespread use of antibiotics, and it wouldn’t be unusual to make 1,000 dressing changes in a day. They didn’t have wash stands until November, so they made wash stands out of wooden boxes used to ship supplies.”
A virulent outbreak of the Spanish flu was another obstacle faced by the staff at Base Hospital No. 25, made worse by the close quarters in barracks and trenches. In a presentation on their research, Mullins shared this letter dated Oct. 21, 1918 from nurse Ann Huheey:
"I’ve had an attack of the Spanish influenza and put a nick in the wall. Stayed on duty all week with a temp that was 102 and 103 then when my temp dropped below normal and took some codea to stop the coughing but it nauseated me and after vomiting I looked as green as grass. Just then the chief nurse saw me and sent me to bed.”
In addition to the challenge of dealing with the Spanish influenza, the hospital was less than 70 percent complete when patients began arriving, in part because all able-bodied males were fighting the war. Getting supplies was also difficult and frequently, according to research by Prior and Mullins, nurses would walk long ways to buy items with their own money for the wounded soldiers.
Despite all those challenges, the hospital treated 5,860 patients over the course of its six months of operation, divided almost evenly between medical and surgical patients.
WWI ended on November 11, 1918, and six days later the patient census at Base Hospital No. 25 peaked at 1,815. It took another two months for operations to wind down and the hospital closed in January of 1919.
Shortly after the end of WWI, when the doctors, nurses and staff of Base Hospital No. 25 had returned to Cincinnati, the United States Army Surgeon General Merritte Ireland, MD, wrote a letter to the Board of Trustees of Cincinnati General Hospital. In it, he said he wanted to express his earnest hope that the organization would be kept intact and that the "glorious heritage and splendid achievement” from this Great War would be passed down to future personnel. An association was formed at Cincinnati General to reminisce about their time at Base Hospital No. 25 and continue to share that information over the years.
A century later, with the UC Medical Center serving as the home to the Institute of Military Medicine and the Center for Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness Skills (C-STARS) program, it’s safe to say that Ireland’s hope came to be.