Medical paraphernalia tells the stories of World War 1

May 15 / 157

Medical artefacts and paraphernalia from the First World War – including a travelling dentistry chair, original medicine bottles and soldier cartoons – are on display at the University of Melbourne’s Medical History Museum.

Museum curator, Dr Jacky Healy, said many of the key medical innovations and stories forged on World War 1 battlefields are highlighted in the exhibition, Compassion and Courage: Australian Doctors and Dentists in the Great War.

“War has always been a catalyst for change in the fields of medicine and dentistry,” said Dr Healy. “World War 1 brought with it new types of military conflict never known before, from machine gun and poisonous gas attacks to trench warfare.

“This created new medical challenges, including infectious diseases, treatment of wounds, psychological trauma and hygiene.”

The exhibition showcases:

  • Captain Doctor Arthur Poole Lawrence was awarded a Military Cross for treating the wounded under fire. The exhibition houses a sketch of him as a digger wearing a slouch hat.
  • The death penny medallion of Melville Rule Hughes, WW1 surgeon. One of over one and a half million medallions were distributed in the British Empire to bereaved families.
  • Infectious disease killed as many soldiers as war wounds. Due to work led by Charles Martin, pathology labs were set up as part of field hospitals reducing dramatically the fatalities of soldiers. Artefacts from these field hospitals are on show.
  • Watercolour paintings of war wounds by Darryl Lindsay portray the work of surgeons and dentists who pioneered facial reconstruction at the Queen’s Hospital Sidcup, London.

“One of the interesting stories told by the exhibition is the often overlooked but incredibly important role of dentists,” said Dr Healy.

In the first three months of the Gallipoli campaign over 600 soldiers were evacuated for dental reasons, to the base hospitals in Egypt to get dental treatment.

To stem this inefficient system and deal with these often serious health problems, there was a call for dentally trained soldiers to step forward to fill this vacuum. Three Gallipoli soldiers stepped forward and created the Australian Army’s first dental unit.

“We know of a dental officer being struck in the leg by Turkish shrapnel while extracting a tooth from a fellow soldier,” said Dr Healy.

The dental team at Gallipoli performed 180 fillings, 327 extractions and 60 denture repairs from November until the December evacuation. There were 188 army dental units by the end of the war.

Alumni from the University were among those who went to war and suffered numerous casualties as soldiers and medical professionals. The exhibition pays homage to these alumni and the shared history of our partner organisations.

The first director appointed to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Gordon Clunes Mathieson, was killed at Gallipoli before he was able to take up his post, his story represented in the exhibition.

The Victorian Medical Insurance Agency Limited is the sponsor of the Compassion and Courage: Australian Doctors and Dentists in the Great War.


Story by Laura Soderlind

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