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. 

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 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’).

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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: 

A SEVERE CASE OF DYSENTERY (Dec 1915)

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

and

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”.

Another prize winning article is all my heart desires: WHAT PRECAUTIONS WOULD YOU TAKE IN SAVING FOR MICROSCOPIC EXAMINATION, A SPECIMEN OF URINE, A SPECIMEN OF SPUTUM, A SPECIMEN OF FAECES? 

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

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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. 

 

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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.

 

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Chasing Sister Williams

Since I found the reference to Sister F E Williams in the Official History of the Australian Medical Services, I’ve been looking for traces of her, wondering if she could be the hero of the story, if she can have ever met D’Herelle, how a woman came to be a bacteriologist at that time anyway.

The folks at the State Library of Victoria sent me this article by Dr Kirsty Harris, University of Melbourne.

It turns out Fannie Eleanor Williams was a noted bacteriologist who specialised in dysentery – starting as a technician working under a bacteriologist in Gallipoli, moving on to Cairo and then the Western Front. Here she is, in the laboratory on Lemos(Australian War Memorial Collection item ID H13944)

After the war Fannie Williams was one of the first three staff members of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Australia’s oldest research institute - the first female scientist employed there. She worked there until she retired, and ran her own lab. They have their own little bio for her - where I found this picture. 

 http://www.wehi.edu.au/about-history/notable-scientists/miss-fannie-williams

Her early published articles were co-authored with Charles Martin, from Army hospitals during the war. I looked them up in the British Journal of Medicine and they look a bit like this:

 

 

She says great things like:

Attempts to isolate dysentery bacilli from 217 cases in which the stools contained muco-pus with or without blood were made. In many cases the amount of mucus in the stool was very small…The method employed was to wash the mucus, break it up in sterile broth and plate out some drops on the surface of a MaConkey plate.

Her dates don’t line up for Pozieres, and I think we want our main character to actually suffer dysentery, So it looks like she can’t be the hero of our story. But I’m enjoying seeking the aesthetic of the laboratory between the science-paper lines. I’m wondering what her relationship would have been like with the normal nursing staff, how she obtained her samples (!) (me - not getting over the whole thing about poo samples). There's something about having the specificity of what scientists knew about dysentery at the very moment our story is set. And there's something important for me about connecting this understanding to an Australian woman. Someone who lived in the same city as me. 

Researching "The Invisible War" - Meeting the computational biologist

Cycled down through a blustery Melbourne afternoon (no gloves, cold fingers) to meet Kathryn Holt at the Bio 21 Institute. She found us a spot on Flemington Road to have coffee and Gregory asked, “So, do you know why we asked to meet you?”

She shook her head, smiling quietly and I wondered if she thought we were a bit crazy. Gregory pulled out copies of Squid Vibrio and Zobi and launched into a description of Mission Symbiosis Storytelling.

Kathryn explained to me that she’s a computational biologist – which I had never heard of. There’s something kind of amazing and on the edge of humiliating about being the absolute novice thrown into these conversations. Kathryn talked me through it.

She’s working with samples of the Shigella bacteria, which causes dysentery (some of which are over a 100 years old, from WW1. Think of them sampling soldiers’ stools and keeping those samples intact for so long). Kathryn does genetic analysis and uses that information to trace where Shigella bacteria have travelled in the world. She told us about a guy from the Pasteur institute, who’s obsessively using genetic data to exactly track the movement of Shigella bacteria from trench to trench during the war. I love the stories I get to hear of humans dedicated to drilling down such specific details.

Kathryn talked about the Shigella bacteria’s “type three secretion system”. The they have 40 or 50 genes which can form the shape of a needle used to puncture a human gut wall. Then they manipulate our cells so they can live inside them. Her descriptions were so graphic. I was already seeing scenes of our story forming.

She talked about the microbiome, the thousands of species of bacteria in our gut, some of which would compete with Shigella, helping us to beat the dysentery.

I sat there, cold hands gripping my coffee, listening with a kind of gleeful astonishment.

The last thing I wrote in my notebook for that meeting was, “macrophages patrolling your gut”.

Researching "The Invisible War": State Library and the nurses

Sitting in the La Trobe Reading Room with its great arched ceiling and old timber chairs. My book requests arrive from the stacks and are announced by text message, lighting up my silent phone. Nurses’ writing. Olive Haynes, Elsie Tranter, R. A. Kirkcaldie, a collection of letters, a contemporaneous diary, an after-the-fact memoir respectively. I read them quickly in the echoing afternoon, skimming for the trenches, for the women’s workload, for their political opinions.

Olive Haynes, from the website of The State Library of South Australia, item B68419

Olive Haynes, from the website of The State Library of South Australia, item B68419

Of course the letters are censored. The memoir is rosy and nostalgic. The journal is full of descriptions of new landscapes, of days off, and the songs the soldiers sang. What did their working days look like? What exactly did they do? What did the wards smell like? Which muscles ached at the end of the day? I want to see the grit of their daily lives. I want to see their horror and despair (did they feel those things? I can’t find it. They are so unerringly brave and hopeful in their own texts). I love Olive best, possibly because of Anzac Girls, finding the letter which must have inspired the Turkish delight scene, or the one from the night of the storm on Lemnos, And of course when she contracts dysentery. She’s so stoic though, and gives very little information, just rails against being kept in bed. I’m going to have to find a first hand account from a person who suffered dysentery elsewhere. I’m only part way into Elsie’s diaries – she’s still so full of hope, of love for the soldiers, of wonder at the places she’s visiting. I wonder how things will change for her and if it will reflect in her diaries? 

Researching "The Invisible War": Conscription and Objection

I’m reading What’s Wrong with Anzac? Part of what they are saying seems to be that Australians promote an idea that our nation was shaped by that conflict, by those months in Gallipoli, but that actually this country was also shaped by the peace movement. That this is an important part of our history to keep telling. I remember reading about the Australian conscription referendums when I was in high school. I remember my little modern history class and the sense of pride we all had that our country had voted no. That every soldier in Australia who went, had the choice. That the soldiers at the front voted no. I remember reading the classic “Blood Vote” poem and analysing it to learn about propaganda and emotive language.

One of the nurse’s journals I’m reading – Olive Haynes, makes a note when the results of the referendum comes in. She is furious and heartbroken. Our brave boys fighting in such awful conditions while the shirkers sit at home. They should be forced to come. She’s tending these broken men every day and sending letters home to the mothers of those who died. She thinks they deserve all the support their countrymen can give. “Our boys say they only voted no because they didn’t want to ask for help.”

My great grandfather, Herbert Dobbing

My great grandfather, Herbert Dobbing

My great-grandfather was a conscientious objector in the UK. He was imprisoned as a traitor with all kinds of other criminals for the duration of the war. The story I heard as a child was that the conscientious objector “traitors” were actually on their way to the front on a train, to be sent over the top first without weapons. Someone on that train wrote a note and threw it out the window and it made it to the newspapers. There was an uproar. So the objectors were brought back and imprisoned instead. Whether this story is true I don’t know, but it’s a powerful one for a seven year old to form an identity around. That my great grandfather was not prepared to kill for his beliefs, but he would have died for them.

I’ve been reading Regeneration by Pat Barker. Siegfried Sassoon in his internal moral battle. An officer whose men loved him, who fought bravely and was tactically hugely successful. Who didn’t believe that war was wrong, but who came to believe that this war was wrong. My favourite story about Sassoon is that he singlehandedly took a German trench, scattering 60 German soldiers, and then instead of letting command know that he’d done it, he sat down and read poetry for two hours. The British gained no tactical advantage from his skills and bravery that day.

I don’t imagine there will be room in this book we're writing for a debate about conscientious objection, the peace movement and the political reasons for war, or Australia’s involvement. But perhaps it would work for the story to have conversations about the conscription debate – which was so divisive in this country and people had such strong opinions about. I also have a vision of one soldier patient with his bandaged foot in the air being in the corner of every page. Saying nothing, but one day reading Sassoon’s “Declaration of a Soldier” and the next Bertrand Russell etc etc. So the ideas are pointed to, but don’t make part of the main text.

Researching "The Invisible War": Coburg RSL

Coburg RSL. Where the Boer War, the World Wars and Vietnam are jumbled together in two glass cabinets of memorabilia. The bar’s furniture is in upheaval, the walls smell of fresh paint and while we sit, turning over artifacts, two men mount a new flatscreen to the wall and then cheer as channel nine lights up the room.

We open medical kits rolled in neat little boxes, that could have been made by Brunswick hipsters selling moustache wax. But they weren’t. They were made last century, to be taken to war.

Gregory strikes gold. “The War Pictorial” a monthly magazine, contemporary to the war, full of photographs. We pour over them, showing each other the images, horses chest deep in mud, hospital tents tidy and shiny, hospital tents bombed and lying in piles of wreckage, women in munitions factories, women with shovels over their shoulders, women welding, women spinning wool to make bandages. I’m compelled by the pictures of these women.


Researching "The Invisible War": Dear Mrs. Roadknight

I think to tell this story I need to be connected to it. To know about people and what their lives were. So, as a way in, I’ve been looking up my own family history. Walter and James Roadknight were my Nana’s uncles. James was injured trying to invade at Gallipoli and then killed in Belgium. Walter died in France of gunshot wounds to the chest almost a year later. They grew up around the Gippsland lakes. I know that country, from gazing out the car window at the old white weatherboard house on the edge of Johnsonville where my great-great grandmother lived.

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