‘I can do this’

As the world commemorates the momentous events of 1914–18, the RCP has been looking at how its doctors fared during the First World War.

Future presidents Charles Wilson and Walter Brain reacted to the war in very different fashions. Wilson was a distinguished junior doctor and member of the RCP when, wishing to serve in the trenches, he concealed his higher qualifications to serve as medical officer with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. Brain, on the other hand, was a lifelong pacifist, and his service was for the Quaker Friends’ Ambulance Unit in England. He specialised in x-rays – on the back of his once having read a book on the subject. His expertise in locating bullets and shrapnel was quickly recognised.

The war was a watershed moment for women in the medical world. With so many men, including trained doctors, serving and being killed on the front line, hospitals had no choice but to turn to women to fill traditionally male roles. Gladys Wauchope, on hearing of the shortage of men claimed that ‘One night the thought flashed upon me: “I can do this medical work.”’ Wauchope would eventually become the eighth female fellow of the RCP.

Charles Wilson
Charles McMoran Wilson
Gladys Mary Wauchope

Both Wauchope and Charles Wilson, as Lord Moran, went on to write of their experiences in the war. Wauchope in an autobiography, The story of a woman physician (1963), in which she observed how the war had ‘shattered the Edwardian world and created the lost generation’. Wilson’s The anatomy of courage (1945) examined the effects of fear and stress on soldiers. Writing at the end of the Second World War, during which he had become Winston Churchill’s personal physician, he sadly observed that ‘Twice in my lifetime I have seen boys grow to be men, only to be consumed by war’.

Consumed by war: Physicians and the First World War – curated in partnership with the British Red Cross museum and archives – was on display in the Lasdun Hall and Censors’ Room ante-chamber from 13 May–28 July 2014.

Peter Basham, collections officer

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Peter Basham ,
collections officer

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