M*A*S*H, SOUTH AFRICAN STYLE
It is easy for someone of my generation to conjur up images of doctors, nurses, and surgical tents from the long-lived TV show M*A*S*H (1972-1983), which depicted life (and death) in the 4077th—a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital operating in the shorter-lived Korean War (1950-1953). The popularity and longevity of this biting satire can probably be attributed more to America’s conflicted attitudes about the Vietnam conflict than the earlier war it supposedly depicts.
Today’s blog, how ever, will actually focus on a much earlier conflict and the hospital staff and medical care provided to British troops fighting in the South African War (1899-1902) popularly known as the Boer War. We have recently acquired through donation a large number of books on the Boer War, including published and unpublished personal narratives, journals, diaries, and photograph albums of medical and nursing personnel.
These amazing (and in some cases one-of-a-kind) written and pictorial accounts make it clear that surgical and first aid care units like those depicted in M*A*S*H were not so new.
If one substitutes horse or oxen cart carriers for helicopters, jeeps, and ambulances, there are many parallels between the medical care provided in surgical tents pitched fifty years apart in time.
Although there was some initial controversy about having female nurses present in combat hospitals, a prominent Member of Parliament Mr. Burdett-Coutts insisted on their importance and argued in favor of expanding their numbers and influence in military base hospitals.
A photograph album from the period provides visual confirmation of their presence and importance in saving soldiers’ lives.
Once again, I would like to acknowledge and thank Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf for their generous donation to the Wolfsonian-FIU library—a gift that will be greatly appreciated by historians, faculty, and students interested in the history of military medicine.