Tag Archives: Canadian Bulletin of Medical History

Scottish Military Suicide in the Long Twentieth Century




World War One: first aid on the battlefield, Somme. Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Written by guest blogger Dr. Simon Harold Walker.

In 1916, just weeks after the first battle of the Somme, a Scottish Private penned his suicide note. The note began, ‘I cannot stand it anymore…they will not let me come home.’ This desperate Private was not the only man to take his own life during the First World War. In fact, it is increasingly becoming apparent that this was not an entirely rare event. Another, a former driver in the Royal Army Medical Corps, wounded out of service in 1916, also took his own life after being refused for reenlistment. Potentially influenced by the rhetoric of the white feather campaign, and shame and emasculation directed at those not in service, he lay down on a train track in 1917 to be decapitated.

Suicide within the British Military is a long-standing issue and topical issue. For the Scottish Armed Forces, recognition and support for these cases have been a long-term struggle. To this day, the charter from 1923 which outlines who is entitled to be named on the Honour Roll, explicitly forbids the inclusion of suicide cases:

A member of the Armed Forces of the Crown or of the Merchant Navy who was either a Scotsman (i.e. born in Scotland or who had a Scottish born father or Mother) or served in a Scottish Regiment and was killed or died (except as a result of suicide) as a result of a wound, injury or disease sustained (a) in a theatre of operations for which a medal has been or is awarded; or (b) whilst on duty in aid of the Civil Power.

Yet, Scotland has also been at the vanguard of dealing with military mental health in recent history. The infamous Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh developed increasingly sophisticated and innovative ways to treat and understand Shellshock during and after the First World War. Initially, a hydropathic institute specializing in water therapy; as an understanding of Shellshock developed, practical recovery techniques for psychiatric first aid were introduced for patients which included: swimming, golf, tennis, and cricket. Patients made model yachts, joined the camera club, and walked in the grounds. The famous psychologist William Rivers successfully utilized the ‘talking cure’ for shell-shocked officers while practicing at Craiglockhart on famous patients like the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Sassoon also remains one of the only war poets to publish on the issue of soldier suicide directly. Within his poem, he describes the suicide of a soldier whose death is never again discussed. Sassoon outlines succinctly what remains to be a considerable challenge for historians and modern servicemen and women. In 2018, eight Scottish military personnel took their own lives, prompting Clare Haughey MSP the Minister for Mental Health to issue a statement confirming that steps were being taken to support the mental health of veterans.

Military suicide is a difficult topic to research and consider, but it is also increasingly essential as service and veteran suicide rates have yo-yoed worryingly since 2003 in countries such as Britain, the United States, and Canada. My research focuses on military suicides in Britain between 1914 -2018, and so far it has uncovered many untold histories.

Dr. Simon Harold Walker is a Military Medical Historian and Historical Suicidologist who is currently researching the History of British Suicide in the Long Twentieth Century. He has published on a variety of topics associated with the British Army and Military Medicine and is releasing a book on the physical creation and transformation of soldier’s bodies in the First World War with Bloomsbury Publishing titled Physical Control, Transformation and Damage in the First World War: War Bodies. He also presents the YouTube series Feeding Under Fire, where he takes pleasure in feeding trench food to his unsuspecting guests. You can find out more about Dr. Walker and his research at his website www.simonhwalker.com

Dr. Walker’s latest article in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History entitled “The Greater Good: Agency and Inoculation in the British Army, 1914–18” is free to read for a limited time here.

A General Good Time

Written by guest blogger Matthew Smith.

Illustration

Judging children’s behaviour is largely a matter of perspective.  Whether we see certain childhood behaviours as positive or negative often boils down to our particular viewpoint and, crucially, how said behaviour impinges on us, the adult.  As I suggest in “Snips and Snails,” perceptions of positive and negative childhood behaviour have also changed historically, and for a wide variety of reasons that often have little to do with childhood itself.  What hasn’t changed, however, is that we adults have not tended to be particularly concerned with how children view their own behaviour.  But should we?

There is an illustration by True Williams (1839-1897) in the original edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that nicely sums how a child’s perception of their own behaviour – and its repercussions – can differ markedly from that of an adult. In the illustration, entitled, “A General Good Time,” Tom has just fed Aunt Polly’s cat, Peter, a spoonful of “Pain-killer,” a quack medicine she has been giving Tom to pick up his spirits.  The cat goes berserk, knocking over flower pots and furniture, and eventually smashing through the window.  While everything in Tom’s posture and expression exudes how hilarious he thinks this is, his poor Aunt Polly looks mortified, hands clasped together in a desperate plea to the Almighty to set this boy right.

Although most of us – certainly those of us who are parents – might side with Aunt Polly’s interpretation of the situation if we were left to clean up the mess, what if we saw a scene of this nature in a comedy film?  We might well laugh along with Tom at the cat’s antics.  The scene reminds me of my eight-year-old son’s recent birthday party, which was a “tubing” party at a local ski hill.  While rocketing down the hill, the children’s screams and shrieks of delight were charming; not so when they continued during the birthday lunch, held in a cramped room in the lodge.  After a few minutes, the scene in the lunchroom resembled that in “A General Good Time,” except with a dozen maniacal children replacing the cat and all manner of birthday detritus replacing the plant pots.  While some of the kids chased each other around and under the table, others engaged in a belching competition that drowned out my attempts to attain some sanity to the proceedings.  My son sat back in delight, taking in the carnage.  And if I hadn’t had to clean it all up, I might have as well.

There is a final, telling moment towards the end of the scene depicted in “A General Good Time.”  Tom, having made Aunt Polly guilty for making him drink the Pain-killer asserts that – taste notwithstanding – the medicine did Peter the cat good.  In other words, a bit of mindless mayhem might not be all bad.  As parents – and adults – we should remember that sometimes.

Read Matthew Smith’s article “‘Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails’: Boys and Behaviour in the USA” free for a limited time on UTP Journals Online.

Presumed Heterosexuality in the Archives

Written by guest blogger, Erin Gallagher-Cohoon.

Between 1946 and 1948, US Public Health Service (USPHS) researchers deliberately exposed Guatemalan prisoners, soldiers, asylum patients, and sex workers to syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid. Leading up to this study, it was discovered that penicillin could cure syphilis and gonorrhea, and researchers were eager to learn whether penicillin had potential as a preventative and not just a cure. The original study design called for a sexual transmission method, although this was quickly supplanted by medical exposures. To put it more bluntly, the original study design called for hiring sex workers (who had either tested positive or were simply assumed to be infected with a venereal disease) to have sex with prisoners and soldiers and thus, it was hoped, to transmit venereal diseases from the women to the men. It was politically inadvisable in the United States for government researchers to be hiring sex workers. So they headed to a country with legalized prostitution, Guatemala.

In 2015, in the midst of my research on the USPHS’ Sexually Transmitted Disease Inoculation Study, I came across a part of the history that made no sense to me.

At this point in my studies, the records of the lead medical researcher, Dr. John C. Cutler, had been redacted and digitized (see https://www.archives.gov/research/health/cdc-cutler-records). So, I imagine I was squinting at my laptop in confusion.

National Archives and Records Administration

I was reading the patient index cards. Patient 147, a male asylum patient, “was a known, highly promiscuous and active homosexual.”[1] He was not the only male subject whose index card included a reference to same-sex sexual activities.

These homosexual encounters were significant to me because they contradicted Dr. Cutler’s own words. In his “Final Syphilis Report,” he wrote: “homosexual contacts did not significantly alter experimental results.”[2]

National Archives and Records Administration

How, I wondered, could Dr. Cutler so readily dismiss the possibility that homosexual contacts might have been experimentally significant? On one hand, it seemed to me, he was dismissing the same-sex sexual activity of his male research subjects; while on the other, he was recording the existence of these “contacts,” and later archiving them for future researchers to find.

The easy answer is that these encounters, based on his records, were statistically rare, and that “no clinical evidence of spread of syphilis by this route was observed.”[3] As I argue in my recent article in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, however, this does not sufficiently explain the contradictions within the records. Rather, as the original study design shows, the study was based on a flawed understanding of disease transmission that assumed the presence of an infected female body, an assumption that was fundamentally heteronormative. Within this context, homosexual behaviour was implausible or, at best, irrelevant.

[1] Patient 147, Index Cards, Insane Asylum Female Patients Con’t, Hollinger Box 1a, CDC Record Group 442, Records of Dr. John C. Cutler, National Archives and Records Administration at Atlanta. Although grouped with the index cards of ‘Insane Asylum Female Patients Con’t,’ this patient was in fact male. On 19 September 1947, it was noted that “Penis-papule at right of frenum, 3×5 mm. The frenum and foreskin surrounding papule are indurated.”

[2] Records of Dr. John C. Cutler, Final Syphilis Report, Folder 1, 29.

[3] Records of Dr. John C. Cutler, Final Syphilis Report, Folder 1, 27.

Erin Gallagher-Cohoon (Department of History, Queen’s University) recently published “Despite Being ‘Known, Highly Promiscuous and Active’: Presumed Heterosexuality in the USPHS’s STD Inoculation Study, 1946–48” in the Fall 2018 issue of Canadian Bulletin of Medical History. The article is free to read for a limited time here.