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Events and Exhibits

Facing the Great War: World War I and the Beginnings of Modern Rehabilitation

Facing the Great War, event poster

The Maryland Historical Society will partner with the National Park Service and the Baltimore School for the Arts to produce Facing the Great War, three original short plays performed by BSA’s sophomore students that will focus on the experience of Marylanders during the World War I era. FREE performances will take place on March 21st at 2 PM at Fort McHenry, and March 28th at 2 PM at the Maryland Historical Society. Grant funding for the program was provided by Wells Fargo.

When the United States declared war against Germany and the Central Powers in the spring of 1917, the nation was already in the midst of social and technological shifts that would be further altered by the decision. Progressive reforms were sweeping the country’s urban centers, and Baltimore was no different. Blight, delinquency, and rapid population increases forced local governments to push for major changes in the social landscape. For the federal government, this environment facilitated its ability to support WWI veterans, many of whom were mentally and physically scarred from their time overseas. Organizations such as the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) also stepped up to provide essential care, while also increasing public awareness of the issues.

The Greatest Mother in the World.” The American Red Cross. Circa 1917-1919. MdHS Poster Collection. Oversize, 1910-1919, Folder 11.

“The Greatest Mother in the World.”
The American Red Cross. Circa 1917-1919. MdHS Poster Collection. Oversize, 1910-1919, Folder 11. REFERENCE PHOTO.

"A Man May Be Down But He’s Never Out!” The Salvation Army. Circa 1917-1919. MdHS Poster Collection. Oversize, 1910-1919, Folder 12.

“A Man May Be Down But He’s Never Out!”
The Salvation Army. Circa 1917-1919. MdHS Poster Collection. Oversize, 1910-1919, Folder 12.

The United States Army set up General Hospital No. 2 at Fort McHenry, which would ultimately become one of the largest such complexes for receiving soldiers returning from action. Its development occurred quite rapidly. The site went from having less than 30 Civil War era buildings at its opening in August 1917, to over 100 structures by the end of 1919. Dr. Norman B. Cole would recollect his time there in the latter year, when the hospital had to accommodate “the terrible flood of American war wounded,” whose numbers would reach “roughly 3,500 patients.”(1)

The medical facilities were overseen by Lieutenant Colonel Harry S. Purnell, and included several departments that pioneered new treatment strategies tailored to the needs of the victims of modern war.(2) The advent of trench warfare, combined with the increased use of mustard gas and other chemical agents and advanced weaponry, created a uniquely afflicted veteran population. Hospital staff could not help but be shocked by some of the injuries they encountered. Gertrude Weil worked as a reconstruction aide at General Hospital No. 2 and later remarked that “there were amputees, blind boys, shell-shocked and gassed soldiers; some were in such bad shape that they refused to let their relatives visit them.”(3) For a nation that was just entering the world’s military stage, and had not had a major conflict on its own soil for over 50 years, the situation was certainly unfamiliar if not unprecedented.

"Headshot. Injured Soldier, M. Giovanni,” U.S. General Hospital No. 2, Fort McHenry, McFee Photograph Collection,  PP32.932, MdHS.

“Headshot. Injured Soldier, M. Giovanni,” U.S. General Hospital No. 2, Fort McHenry, McFee Photograph Collection, PP32.932, MdHS.

“Headshot. Injured Soldier," U.S. General Hospital No. 2, Fort McHenry, McFee Photograph Collection, PP32.927, MdHS.

“Headshot. Injured Soldier,” U.S. General Hospital No. 2, Fort McHenry, McFee Photograph Collection, PP32.927, MdHS.

The American Red Cross, Y.M.C.A., the Salvation Army, among others, joined efforts with the U.S. Army to address the array of issues faced by these men. It was a two-pronged undertaking, as the physical rehabilitation and psychological recovery of soldiers both posed significant challenges. Experts in orthopedic surgery, physiotherapy, and neuro-surgery were assigned to the hospital, often incorporating new technology and treatment strategies. The Maxillo-facial department was established in order to deal with the complexity of injuries, which required a combination of dental and surgical expertise. While trench warfare largely protected a soldier’s body from damage on the battlefield, his upper body and face were more likely to be exposed. This situation resulted in a large volume of facial and jaw injuries, nearly 340 of which were treated at Hospital #2. Most of these were documented by Sgt. 1st Class Eugene McFee , formerly a newspaper photographer who was employed as the chief X-Ray technician.

McFee’s photograph collection, housed in the MdHS’s archives, provides a fascinating and eerie glimpse into the rehabilitation process for the men. Many of the soldiers had either lost eyes, or had large gashes and portions of their faces missing. These men, along with those who had lost limbs or the ability to use them, were certainly concerned about how they would be received by society. Approximately 1,000 veterans would be fitted for orthopedic or facial prosthetics at Fort McHenry. Artists Elizabeth Cook and Helen Richardson were brought in to fabricate masks, intended to ease the anxiety-ridden transition to civilian life. Their role was “In a word to give to the men, faces as presentable as possible.”(4)

The character Richard Harrow, played by Jack Huston, from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire serves as a familiar example of the work artists Elizabeth Cook and Helen Richardson once did at Fort McHenry.

The character Richard Harrow, played by Jack Huston, from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire serves as a familiar example of the work artists Elizabeth Cook and Helen Richardson once did at Fort McHenry.

“Eugene McFee with X-Ray equipment and patient,” U.S. General Hospital No. 2, Fort McHenry, McFee Photograph Collection, PP32.545, MdHS.

“Eugene McFee with X-Ray equipment and patient,” U.S. General Hospital No. 2, Fort McHenry, McFee Photograph Collection, PP32.545, MdHS.

The hospital also incorporated job and life skills training into its rehabilitation program. The Educational Department was officially funded starting June 28, 1918, when the U.S. Congress passed a bill “providing for the training, education, and placement afterward of disabled soldiers.” Participants could earn up to $150 per month during the training period. This concept of occupational therapy was beginning to take hold, focusing on a person’s need to feel useful despite his or her disabilities. The department promoted the idea that, “While the activity may not directly improve his physical condition, the idea of having definite work to do has been a great mental and moral help to many a man.” For one veteran who had a fractured jaw and could only move in a wheel-chair, aides noted a dramatic psychological improvement since he began learning “knotting, bead and basket weaving and leather tooling.”(5)

Veterans at the Baltimore campus had the opportunity to pursue numerous vocations, catered to their particular ailments and pre-existing skills. For those with lower body and facial injuries, the mechanical drafting school required only “Two Good Hands and at least One Eye” to train for jobs that could earn between $80 to $200 a month. As for the Print Shop, “two good hands and some gray matter are the only prerequisite,” meaning a man with prosthetics or permanently damaged legs could make a living in the profession. Veteran printing apprentices even produced the hospital’s newsletter, The Trouble Buster, a primary source that provides fascinating details for research on the site and time period. Other options included bookkeeping, photography, tire repair, electrical work, and shoe repair.(6) Publications were sure to emphasize the therapeutic nature of such practical work, while also attempting to ease the stigma of disability that many men would still carry with themselves.

Blind soldiers, most likely exposed to mustard gas on European battlefields, were tended to by the Red Cross at its Evergreen campus in North Baltimore. While these patients would have had access to some of the same occupational training and social events provided at the military base, the lack of sight did require a more specialized program. Photographs are the main source of information about the rehabilitation at Evergreen. Within the collection, we see blind veterans engaged in wood-working, poultry farming, musical training, and even learning human anatomy relying on their senses of touch.

“Students Making Hammocks, Baskets, and Caning Chairs.” Evergreen-Red Cross Institute for the Blind Photograph Collection. 1918-1920, PP148.20, MdHS.

“Students Making Hammocks, Baskets, and Caning Chairs.” Evergreen-Red Cross Institute for the Blind Photograph Collection. 1918-1920, PP148.20, MdHS.

It is also interesting to note that the photographs from Evergreen indicate that training among the blind veterans was racially integrated. We know that there were black soldiers residing at General Hospital No. 2, though there presence was largely mentioned in passing and primarily through Baltimore’s Afro-American Newspaper. One article entitled “Colored Soldiers at Fort McHenry,” lauded the efforts of Miss Rosina Joseph, a local black welfare worker who interacted with soldiers of both races at the fort hospital.(7) U.S. military units were certainly segregated during their campaigns in Europe, despite the fact that many African-American soldiers ended up serving under French army officers. Racial discrimination in the Baltimore area remained a fact of life, even for veterans who displayed the physical and emotional wounds from the war. Perhaps army leadership felt that only those soldiers who were literally “color blind” could handle the extended periods of integrated rehabilitation that occurred at the Red Cross institute.

The Trouble Maker, page 22-2.

“One of the Bi-Weekly Patients’ Dances” The Trouble Buster: Anniversary Number. April 26, 1919, McFee Photograph Collection, PP32, MdHS.

Rosina Joseph and Gertrude Weil are only two examples of the crucial role that the local population played in Hospital No.2’s success. Baltimoreans provided staff, economic support, and perhaps the most crucial elements, recreation and social interaction. The Fort’s recreation department was largely furnished and staffed by civilians working through the Red Cross or Y.M.C.A. Soldiers could play volleyball, bowling, basketball and tennis, even when they were disabled. One organization’s director was proud to report that “the one-armed baseball teams defeated their opponents — two-armed teams that played with one arm behind their backs.”(8) The Trouble Buster was similarly ecstatic about the ability of “patients without trimmings, such as arms and legs,” who could still participate in the various activities on-base. Furthermore, local sponsorship made it possible for soldiers to see vaudeville shows, movies, musical performances, and take boat rides during their free time. The social dances, put on by the Red Cross, were likely just as important for the men’s morale. With music provided by the Army band or other traveling acts, these social events were very popular mostly because of “the attractive Baltimore girls who attend[ed].”(9)

The military-produced publications may have been a bit optimistic about the hospital’s success in rehabilitating soldiers’ hearts and minds. However, there is no denying that the advanced techniques and opportunities for specialized education gave returning veterans a much stronger foundation for post-war life than any previous generation. U.S. General Hospital No. 2 also brought purpose to the long-ignored grounds at Fort McHenry, while giving the local community a major stake in the future of its military men. The base’s newsletter reflected that sentiment, giving its readers this final thought:

“Long after this hospital is no more, thousands of appreciative doughboys will remember the goodness of Baltimore, Which gave so freely of its pocketbook and hospitality to make happy their last days in the service of the country.”

(David Armenti)

David Armenti is the Student Research Center Coordinator at the Maryland Historical Society.

“Enjoying The Show At Convalescent House,” The Trouble Buster, Anniversary Number. April 26, 1919, McFee Photograph Collection,  PP32, MdHS.

“Enjoying The Show At Convalescent House,” The Trouble Buster, Anniversary Number. April 26, 1919, McFee Photograph Collection, PP32, MdHS.

Footnotes:

(1) Dr. Norman B. Cole. “Hospital Days at Old Fort McHenry.” Sunday Sun Magazine. 18 January, 1959. Dielman-Hayward File, Oversize, MDHS Library.

(2) The Trouble Buster: Anniversary Number. April 26, 1919. McFee Photograph Collection, Box 7: “Printed Ephemera” Fort McHenry. PP32, MdHS Photograph Collections.

(3) Gertrude Kramer Weil. “I Remember … When Fort McHenry Was  a Vet Rehabilitation Center.” Sunday Sun Magazine. 17 August, 1958. Dielman-Hayward File, Oversize, MDHS Library.

(4) “In the Repositorium”. The Trouble Buster: Anniversary Number. April 26, 1919. McFee Photograph Collection, Box 7: “Printed Ephemera” Fort McHenry. PP32, MdHS Photograph Collections.

(5) The Educational Department. U.S.A. General Hospital No. 2. Published by The Fort McHenry Press, 1919. Page 24.

(6) Ibid. Page 19.

(7) “Colored Soldiers at Fort McHenry.” Baltimore Afro-American. 18 July , 1919.

(8)  Elbert K. Fretwell. “Recreation In Hospitals.” Carry On. Volume 1, n.d.  Page 12.

(9) The Trouble Buster: Anniversary Number. April 26, 1919. McFee Photograph Collection, Box 7: “Printed Ephemera” Fort McHenry. PP32, MdHS Photograph Collections.

Discussion

One Response to “Facing the Great War: World War I and the Beginnings of Modern Rehabilitation”

  1. Hi: REGARDING MARY ELIZABETH COOK
    I am a semi-retired art museum director now working with the Columbus, Ohio, Historical Society on a World War 1 exhibition, and a speaker for the Ohio Humanities Council. I’ve been interested in May’s biography and work for years. I just saw your article and would like to touch base with you. I’ve accumulated quite a lot of information and images on Ms. Cook’s life and work. Congratulations for a fine article.

    Posted by Susan Talbot-Stanaway | 08. Aug, 2018, 2:26 pm

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