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Supporting the troops during World Wars I and II

A look inside Base Hospital No. 26 in France, 1918.  (Photo: University of Minnesota Archives)

Every war requires that doctors and nurses become soldiers. As the prospect of conflict with Germany loomed over the United States in October 1916, the Surgeon General asked American medical schools to establish base hospitals — corps of surgeons and nurses who would train together and serve overseas. The University of Minnesota Medical School, with support from Mayo Clinic, began organizing Base Hospital No. 26 in the spring of 1917.

A group of Minneapolis citizens raised $15,000 to purchase needed equipment, according to historian Leonard G. Wilson. Ella Pennington, the wife of prominent railway executive Edmund Pennington, helped organize a patriotic baseball game, raising $3,600 for a contingency fund. Helen Pillsbury gave her Packard touring car, while C.C. Bovey donated a motorcycle with a side car.

By midsummer, Base Hospital No. 26 was equipped, staffed, and waiting for the call to active duty. In addition to surgeons, other doctors, and nurses, the personnel included wireless operators, telegraphers, engineers, carpenters, machinists, x-ray specialists, plumbers, undertakers, plasterers, ambulance drivers, pharmacists, tailors, barbers, stenographers, and clerks. Finally, in December 1917, the War Department mobilized the unit, which arrived at its destination of Allerey, France, in June 1918.

Almost immediately, Maj. S. Marx White, M.D., a University professor who served as chief of medicine for the base hospital, faced a crisis. A large convoy of wounded men was on its way from the front, but the hospital’s medical equipment had not yet arrived. White turned to the contingency fund to purchase medical supplies and surgical dressings. The first train carrying injured soldiers pulled in a couple of days later, and the surgeons set to work in their hastily assembled operating room. By the time Base Hospital No. 26 was demobilized in January 1919, it had cared for nearly 6,000 sick and wounded soldiers.

Laundry facilities at General Hospital No. 26 in Algeria, 1943. (Photo: University of Minnesota Archives)

Back into action for WWII

As the United States prepared for World War II, once again the Surgeon General asked the University of Minnesota Medical School to organize a reserve unit.

After the United States formally entered the war in December 1941, the hospital unit prepared for deployment. Owen Wangensteen, M.D., Ph.D., began a fundraising effort to create a discretionary account for the unit’s commanding officer to purchase supplies and equipment. The Medical School put together a course on emergency surgery for the unit, with topics such as “Surgery under Wartime Conditions,” taught by Wallace Cole, M.D., “Pathologic Physiology of Various Types of Injury Often Accompanied by Shock,” taught by E.T. Bell, M.D., and “The Nervous Factor in Traumatic Shock,” taught by Herman Kabat, M.D., Ph.D.

Before the Medical School enlistees shipped out, the University held a farewell dinner in their honor in the main ballroom of Coffman Memorial Union. President W.C. Coffey noted, “Since the inception of the defense program we in the University have repeatedly declared that education is defense. As evidence I would point out that members of the staff from all ranks have now been drawn into the defense program somewhere. The eve of departure of this hospital unit, trained here, brings this war one step closer to us. … Only through serving the nation can the University serve itself.”

On February 15, 1942, the unit left Minnesota for training, eventually setting up General Hospital No. 26 in Algeria. The hospital later moved to Italy, where it remained throughout the war. General Hospital No. 26 served more than 8,000 patients and was the longest serving hospital in the Mediterranean Theater.

By freelance writer and editor Lee Engfer and Erik Moore, the University of Minnesota’s lead health science archivist.

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