Base Hospital No. 30, One Hundred Years Later – Part One: Organization, Mobilization, and Travel

This is a guest post by Aaron J. Jackson, PhD student, UCSF Department of Anthropology, History and Social Medicine.

One hundred years ago today, April 24, 1918, the 240 men and women of U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 30—the University of California School of Medicine Unit—left American soil to support the war effort by operating a modern hospital in France. Their stories survive in the UCSF Archives & Special Collections, where they contribute to the rich history of the UCSF and San Francisco communities. In this four-part series, I hope to introduce you to the stories of the men and women of Base Hospital No. 30, and I encourage you to learn more by visiting the UCSF Archives & Special Collections in the Parnassus Library.

Figure 1 – U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 30, World War I

“This book purports to be a record, not merely of the happenings and the activities of Base Hospital Number Thirty, but a permanent record of the personnel with the addresses, that we may always keep in touch with one another and thus preserve the bonds of friendship now existent among us.” – Foreword, The Record

As the foreword to the book they commissioned to commemorate their experience expresses, the men and women of Base Hospital No. 30 formed a tight-knit community during their time in the service in the First World War. When Congress declared war on Germany on April 4, 1917, the American Red Cross Society quickly set to work in establishing, organizing, and supplying medical units in the nation’s leading medical institutions with the intent of creating a system of hospitals in France to treat the inevitable casualties of the war. The American medical community was enthusiastic about the effort. Famed surgeons George Crile and Harvey Cushing had been working with America’s French and British allies since 1915 to establish new medical techniques and organizational methods. Many physicians viewed the war as an opportunity to advance medical knowledge while simultaneously serving their country, and many members of the University of California Department of Medicine felt the same. With the assistance of the Red Cross, Base Hospital No. 30 began to organize in the spring and early summer of 1917. Consisting roughly of twenty-five officers, sixty-five nurses, and one-hundred-fifty enlisted men, the unit marched down Market Street as part of a Liberty Loan parade to raise money for the base hospital and to support the war effort.

Figure 2 – Liberty Loan Parade, San Francisco, Cal.

Unfortunately, the initial excitement of the spring and early summer became a period of uneasy waiting and bureaucratic frustration that dragged into the fall as the unit waited on official orders to arrive. Many members of the unit, including one or two officers and several of the nurses and enlisted men, anticipating immediate entrance into the service, had packed and stored their belongings and quit their jobs, and the commanding officers had to continuously combat rumors that the organization had been broken up or that no more base hospitals would be sent to France. Thankfully, the Red Cross had managed to secure $100,000 in funding, which it used to collect supplies while the Army bureaucracy plodded along. Finally, on November 20, 1917, Base Hospital No. 30 received official orders to muster at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

While the unit drilled and trained in the operation of a military hospital, the nurses received separate orders to travel to New York. They were able to enjoy the Christmas holiday with their friends and family before taking their oath of service at the Presidio on December 26, 1917 and setting out on a five-day, frigid train ride to New York City. They arrived on New Year’s Day and spent the next three weeks on Ellis Island preparing their uniforms and equipment and receiving training. On January 25, they were divided into five groups bound for Army camps in South Carolina, Maryland, Ohio, Georgia, and Virginia, where soldiers gathering from across the nation were coming down with acute infections like measles and mumps in large numbers. While the nurses expressed disappointment at not being able to set out for France immediately, Chief Nurse Arabella Lombard expressed that they were happy to be of service and to gain valuable experience before receiving orders to return to New York in March.

Figure 3 – Nurses of Base Hospital No. 30

Back in San Francisco, the officers spent their time working at clinics in the city and training the enlisted personnel. On March 3, 1918, nearly a year after the declaration of war, the unit received orders to pack their supplies and board the steamship S.S. Northern Pacific en route to New York. The trip took two weeks—a near-record pace at the time—and the unit was assigned temporary barracks at Camp Merritt. While in New York, several of the officers attended clinics on the latest medical techniques, such as instruction on the treatment of pneumonia and meningitis at the Rockefeller Institute and the Carrel-Dakin course on aseptic surgery and wound treatment—essentially the use of diluted chlorine and bleach solution to hasten the separation of dead from living tissue, which was cutting-edge lifesaving technology before the discovery of antibiotics.

On April 22, the nurses rejoined Base Hospital No. 30 as the unit boarded the U.S.S. Leviathan, a former German luxury liner originally named the Vaterland that had been seized by the U.S. government the year prior and converted into a troopship. They set sail on April 24, 1918. More than one year after Congress’s declaration of war on Germany, the members of Base Hospital No. 30 were finally travelling to France. They anticipated the hard but meaningful work of repairing the broken bodies of America’s soldiers, but in France, they would have to overcome a number of unexpected obstacles before that work could take place.

Figure 4 – USS Leviathan

Figures:

1 – “U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 30, World War I,” circa 1917, UC San Francisco, Library, University Archives, Base Hospital #30 Collection.

2 – “Liberty Loan Parade, San Francisco, Cal.,” circa 1917, California State Library, California History Section Picture Catalog.

3 – “Nurses of Base Hospital No. 30,” January 1918, UC San Francisco, Library, University Archives, Base Hospital #30 Collection.

4 – “USS Leviathan,” 8 July 1918, Naval History & Heritage Command, 19-N-1707.

Intern Report: Creating an Exhibit

This is a guest post by Caitlin Toomey, UCSF Archives Intern

Caitlin ToomeyHello, readers! My name is Caitlin Toomey and I was fortunate to be an intern at the UCSF Archives and Special Collections during spring semester. I am currently in the process of receiving my master’s degree in museum studies at USF. Since high school, I have either worked or interned at multiple museums and galleries throughout California, but my time at UCSF stood out as a unique and valuable experience.

While an intern, I was responsible for many different tasks and worked on a number of exciting exhibits. What stood out to me about this internship was the amount of skills I was able to gain and perform throughout the process. For the majority of my internship, I focused on the current exhibit on display in the Library, “DO THE BEST FOR OUR SOLDIERS:” University of California Medical Service in World War I. It was during this time that I completed many different duties.

I began by researching specific subjects, such as the influenza outbreak in 1918 and how troops were entertained on the front, which would be used in the exhibition as stand alone displays. I also wrote the labels with other curators for the exhibit. This was a valuable experience because I mostly have a background in education and collections, so working on more curatorial skills was very helpful. Additionally, collaboratively writing labels can be a challenging but educational experience, and as a result helped me with my writing skills.

WWI exhibit case, “Finding Time to Unwind,” on display in the UCSF Library.

Along with assisting in curation, I was also able to work on exhibit design and collections management for “DO THE BEST FOR OUR SOLDIERS”. I most enjoyed this part of the process because I was able to pick out artifacts for a number of the displays. Looking through the UCSF Archives and Special Collections storage was absolutely fascinating. The collection has so much to explore and discover on the shelves and stacks that I was never at a loss when looking for objects to display. I was also lucky enough to select and help place objects for a number of other special exhibits during my tenure, such as the UCSF Alumni Weekend artifact display of unique health science artifacts and the UCSF Cornerstone demolition series.

WWI-era U.S. Army Medical Department medicine kit used in the exhibit. From the UCSF Archives Artifact Collection, item 218.

Overall, I can look back on my time at the UCSF Archives and Special Collections as a very positive and educational experience. Not many internships give the opportunity to play a large role in exhibitions, as well as learn many different skills that will become valuable for a successful career. I know that I will take with me the many lessons I learned during these past few months. This was a wholly gratifying internship and I will cherish it throughout my career.

Dr. Elbridge Best and Base Hospital 30 in WWI

This is a guest post by Cristina Nigro, UCSF History of Health Sciences graduate student and curator of the UCSF Archives WWI exhibit.

Each year on the last Monday of May, our nation commemorates U.S. service members from all wars who died while on active duty. On this Memorial Day we pay special homage to the servicemen and women of World War I, as 2017 marks the centennial anniversary of the U.S. entrance into WWI.

Elbridge Best. From the John Homer Woolsey papers, MSS 70-5, box 1, photograph album.

Dr. Elbridge Best, graduate of the UC Medical School class of 1911 who later joined the UCSF faculty, served in WWI at Base Hospital No. 30 in Royat, France. Base Hospital No. 30 was organized by the UC Medical School in March 1917—the month before President Woodrow Wilson asked a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war with Germany. In a 1964 interview, Best recalled the early mobilization effort by him and his colleagues who “felt that the war was imminent” and who “were a little concerned with regard to the possible slowness of the White House deciding to declare war.”

Officers and enlisted personnel. From the John Homer Woolsey papers, MSS 70-5, box 1, photograph album.

Before leaving for the front, Best was put to work in the aviation unit established in San Francisco. He helped to medically examine applicants for the aviation corps in the summer and fall of 1917. Best was later transferred from the aviation unit to the Presidio in San Francisco. There, he “did regular duty until the mobilization of the Base Hospital 30 in November when we then stopped our other activities, lived as a unit until the transportation was arranged and we boarded the ship at Fort Mason to proceed down the west coast.”

The unit arrived in New York harbor in March 1918, staying at Camp Merritt for about a month before embarking on the journey abroad. Best recalled his experience with an influenza epidemic in New York at the time: “Many of the Army men were taken to the Rockefeller hospital for treatment. And each of the cases where fluid was found in the chest the procedure was to immediately insert a needle and draw the fluid. It became very evident that whenever we saw this done we would say to a friend that we will see this body in the morgue the next morning. So many of these boys died following the removal of the acute fluid that when we went to France we made it a rule never to draw any fluid off until after we were sure there was frank pus and it should be treated surgically. The result was that we lost none of those cases which were the cause of the high mortality at the Rockefeller hospital.”

Base Hospital #30 at Royat, France. From the John Homer Woolsey papers, MSS 70-5, box 1, photograph album

The staff of Base Hospital No. 30 arrived in Royat, France in May 1918. Best remembered that casualties were sent to the hospital soon after the unit arrived: “They came almost as soon as we had most of our material unpacked….The casualties from the front came down to us on trains, Red Cross trains, arranged with beds. And we removed the patients from the trains by way of the windows ordinarily. The one train was full of gas injuries, phosgene and mustard gas. Another trainload came all shot-up which the debridement had been done at the front. These trains ordinarily did not have mixed cases—they were usually all of one type—and they usually contained from four to five hundred wounded at a time.”

Loading patients on “D” train. From the Photograph collection, W, World War I.

Best recalled suddenly learning of the armistice on November 11, 1918: “Everybody was elated and as soon as the evening meal was over on that day, all of those who were not on duty went the three kilometer distance to Clermont-Ferrand to celebrate this notable event…After the armistice, some of us had the privilege of visiting French families in various country areas…We would go and have tea with a certain family or we would have dinner with some people or they would have a reception in which French and American people in the vicinity would appear. I am particularly reminded of one French family we visited in a lovely, old-style two story wooden home on a farm…These people spoke no English and we had to converse in French. And the philosophy, the problems, the day-by- day incidents that these people would gossip with us about were exactly the same as those that we would encounter among families in similar positions in the United States. The only difference between these delightful people and the people in our homes were that they spoke French and we spoke English.”

Misses Dunn and Ireland [nurses] leaving Clermont-Ferrand. From the John Homer Woolsey papers, MSS 70-5, box 1, photograph album.

None of the doctors, nurses, or dentists from UCSF who served their country during the Great War died in active duty, but all have since passed on. UCSF Archives and the UCSF History of Health Sciences Graduate Program honor their legacy with an exhibit, “DO THE BEST FOR OUR SOLDIERS”: University of California Medical Service in World War I, on display now on the main floor of the UCSF Library, 530 Parnassus Ave, San Francisco, through April 2018. It is free and open to the public during Library hours.

View more WWI images and documents from the UCSF Archives collections on Calisphere.