Mobile laboratories, champagne and silver nitrate

I’ve been trying to get my head around what the actual day-to-day nursing of a dysentery patient would have looked like – and the relationship between the nurses at the Casualty Clearing Stations with the bacteriologists. What the nurses understood of the bacteriology, their relationship to the process of diagnosis etc etc. 

I’ve been reading an article by a guy called Robert Atenstaedt about the development of bacteriology (full citation below). He talks about the British going into the Crimean War with such a tiny, unprepared medical team (old soldiers who couldn't carry themselves let alone patients). It was the first war after Telegraph was invented, and the immediacy of the news about soldiers suffering (from dysentery amongst other things) generated outrage at home. That outrage drove the creation of the medical corps. It makes me think of learning about Vietnam, the televised war. It also puts Florence Nightingale in context.

He goes on to say that, despite new knowledge, bacteriologists in WW1 were considered low status - it was routine water testing. Anyone with medical training was wanted for what was felt to be more important work. So it makes sense that Sister Williams was able to carve a niche for herself as a bacteriologist. 

 And now it comes to the link between the bacteriologists and the nurses.

Briony, seeking the Wellcome Library online catalogue has found the Mobile Laboratory. We were scanning through a whole screen of thumbnails and suddenly it was there. This image, I nearly squealed.

Atenstaedt describes the first one, quoting :

a motor vehicle was fitted out with all the pathology paraphernalia of the day including microscopes, centrifuges, autoclaves and incubators: 'The inside of this multum-in-parvo thing on wheels was equipped with everything that the heart of a bacteriologist would require’


(if you’re wondering what multum-in-parvo means, it’s ‘much in little” - ie. the old school way of saying ‘tardis’).


He says there were 15 mobile laboratories built, and each had a two-seater cycle car for collecting specimens. I love the two-seater cycle car. It’s our physical link between the nurses and the laboratory. It's the pathway the samples take. 

A woman called Rachel at the British Royal College of Nursing helped me out, showing my how to search their archive. British Journal of Nursing has some fabulous articles about the treatment of dysentery. Some highlights: 


The feeding of the patient from October 22nd to 26th consisted of small quantities of albumin water, egg-flip, jelly, brandy, and champagne, given every two hours


WHAT ARE THE CAUSES OF DYSENTERY, AND HOW IS IT TREATED? (a prize winning paper by Miss Bessie Grey Johnson 1917)

The patient should be kept warm in bed, and should use the bedpan for all evacuations... If there is not too much tenesmus, rectal injections of either of the following solutions, as prescribed, warmed to 100' F., should be allowed to run slowly into the bowel from a funnel through a long soft tube :- Boric acid, I drachm to I pint. Nitrate of silver, 5 or 10grains to I pint. Quinine, 10grains to I pint.

I read these aloud to Gregory and Briony who gasp and giggle and at one point Gregory muttered, “Pure witchcraft”.


I still have a lot of questions. I want to know who drove the cycle car? Who ordered the specimens? Where did the nurses store them? How far did the mobile laboratories travel? And who emptied the bedpans...

Atenstaedt article details:

"The Development of Bacteriology, Sanitation Science and Allied Research in the British Army 1850-1918: Equipping the RAMC for War by RL Atenstaedt (JR Army Med Corps 156 (3): 154-158) 

And the Logie goes to...

On our journey up to QLD, Scale Free Network(ers) Briony Barr and Gregory Crocetti encountered a chap named Clinton, who lived in a beautiful rainforest home in a hidden little valley of Mullumbimby. Without having even mentioned that we were working on The Invisible War - Clinton told us he was the keeper of a Logie - awarded to his dearly departed friend Megan Williams


Before we knew it, the Logie award was in front of us, showing that Megan Williams won 'Most Popular Actress in a single drama/mini-series' for her work in ANZACs.

Megan is also remembered for her role as Alice Watkin Sullivan in the famous Australian tv series 'The Sullivans'. And with a little digging, we discovered that Megan had played the role of Sister Kate Baker in the 1985 TV mini-series ANZACs, which was a hit for Channel 9. 



ANZACs was the first dramatic role for Paul (hoges) Hogan of Australian Tax evasion and Crocodile Dundee fame, but Megan Williams was the real star of the series, winning the only individual Logie.

It's so great to see the role of an ANZAC nurse given Australia's premier TV award so many years ago!


As a rather amazing coincidence, the lovely lady at Auspcious Arts - who manages our project funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs - is also named Megan Williams.



Researching "The Invisible War" - Battlefield tourists

French army surgical kit - Musee Hisorial de la Grand Guerre

French army surgical kit - Musee Hisorial de la Grand Guerre

Two days of Somme battlefields, memorials, museums. Displays made up of kooky soldier manikins who look like the Thunderbirds; sweeping monuments to war standing over a spread of sunny fields; an aeroplane propeller, crafted from rich, brown hardwood; Otto Dix; Wilfred Owen, cigarette packets and propaganda.

I’m the designated driver, gripping the steering wheel too hard as I go anti-clockwise round the roundabouts, windscreen wipers lurching into action every time I try to indicate.

We have been seeking out references to medicine, sanitation, nurses or Australians. References to dysentery seem like too much to ask.  

Musee Historial de la Grand Guerre

Musee Historial de la Grand Guerre

We visited Musee Somme 1916 built into a crypt turned air-raid-shelter under a church. It’s a long dank tunnel, limping through reconstructions of bunkers and dugouts and information displays. Villers Bretonneux where a kangaroo silhouette on the sign welcomes you into town and the school museum is full of photographs from the Australian War Memorial. Musee Historial de la Grande Guerre has a rich collection of artwork which touches me more deeply than the artefacts. Uniforms are laid out like corpses in indents in the floor.

There are moments I am stopped short. A photo of two small girls dressed as nurses, a display of artworks made from shell casings. Something about humans in awful circumstances, using their time and their hands to craft beautiful objects. 

Art-works made in the trenches from shell-casings at Musee Somme 1916

Art-works made in the trenches from shell-casings at Musee Somme 1916

None of it is quite what we’re looking for - so much of it male and soldier/battle focused - but giving us a broader sense of the human-scale story. We really looking for images of the kind of toilets they used, and what water purifiers looked like. I’m also looking everywhere for references to the mobile laboratory, because I read about it in the Official History of the Australian Army Medical Corps. I’m starting to feel like we need to do some much deeper research and that maybe the internet would be more useful.

Every time Briony asks a museum attendant for references to dysentery in her fumbling French (wayyyy better than mine), we get blank looks and, “Non” “Non”.

But there's something which feels important anyway, about immersing ourselves in this landscape, where the human-scale section of the story is set. 

a field near Pozieres, looking over at the Thiepval memorial

a field near Pozieres, looking over at the Thiepval memorial