What are you more scared of – a bullet or bacteria? To a soldier on the Western Front his greatest enemy was arguably not the German soldier firing at him from the trenches opposite, but the threat of infection to his wounds.
Major battles such as the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele were fought on agricultural land, rich in manure. A soldier’s wounds were very vulnerable to bacteria, and gangrene infections led to frequent amputations and fatalities. An article by Dr William Sherman for the Royal Society of Medicine in 1917 claimed that 80 % per cent of amputations and 75% of deaths after 24 hours were due to infection.
It seems obvious that the government should have invested in research to develop new treatments and techniques that would save lives and speed recovery, but in fact files from the government’s Medical Research Committee (now the Medical Research Council) often refer to the need to challenge the prevailing view that ‘this is no time for research’. The Medical Research Committee (MRC), founded in 1913 and led by Sir Walter Morley Fletcher, actively encouraged and financially supported research as well as collaborating with American and French scientists in an effort to combat the problems of war injuries and illnesses.
The Committee’s files, held here at The National Archives in record series FD 1 to FD 27 include reports to Parliament and correspondence with research scientists and the editors of the Lancet and the British Medical Journal. Reading the files you can piece together discussions and controversies around the research and implementation of medical developments during the war.
One file, FD 5/61, contains correspondence between Sir Walter and Colonel Charles John Bond, a member of the Committee and the Consulting Surgeon to Northern Command, based at Leicester Royal Infirmary. In particular they are keen to encourage research into antiseptics and to find out more about the work of a chemist by the name of Henry Drysdale Dakin.
Dakin had developed an antiseptic solution that could disinfect a wound without harming the surrounding tissue. He had been working with a French surgeon, Dr Alexis Carrel, at a British Red Cross Hospital in Chateau d’Annel Compiegne – near the front line – where his solution was used in combination with Carrel’s wound irrigator to prevent infections.