September 1918: An Unforgettable Month for New England Surgeons 100 Years Ago
David E. Clark
Maine Medical Center, Portland, ME
Objective: To determine what our surgical predecessors in New England were experiencing exactly one hundred years ago
Design: Archival research
Setting: Records of the New England Surgical Society (NESS), contemporary medical/surgical journals, diaries, newspaper archives, and secondary sources
Participants: New England surgeons during the month of September 1918
Main Outcome Measures: Events of historic importance
Results: Over half of NESS members were on active military duty, and many individual World War experiences are recorded in diaries and obituaries. During September, the static trench warfare in Europe was finally overcome by the addition of U.S. Army troops, and the Allies began to advance. However, in the same month, sailors at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier (today’s World Trade Center, site of the NESS Centennial Video) began to develop severe respiratory infections, and this deadly form of “Spanish Flu” soon spread to Massachusetts’ Fort Devens, the local civilian population, and then across the nation, leading to last-minute cancellation of the ACS Clinical Congress. September surgical journals included articles from New England surgeons on traction for fractures, local anesthesia for inguinal herniorraphy, unexpected survival from disseminated ovarian cancer, and other experiences. Editorials in New England medical journals urged support for the war, propagating claims of horrible German atrocities. Newspapers headlined the war and epidemic, but also addressed active social controversies, including the proposed prohibition of alcohol and allowing women to vote. The baseball season was cut short because of the war, and the Red Sox won the World Series for the last time in the 20th Century.
Conclusions: A century ago, New England surgeons were dealing with unprecedented calamities, in addition to ongoing scientific, political, and social developments.