Body Parts of World War I Soldiers Collected for the Museum: Book

“This time I was reading every page because I couldn’t believe what I was reading: that Canadian doctors were part of this British imperial program to collect the body parts of murdered soldiers.”

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When Canada’s Unknown Soldier was repatriated from France in 1995, it took years of planning and negotiations before the body of the unnamed World War I soldier was brought to Ottawa, where it remained in Parliament for three days before being laid to rest. at the National Museum. War Memorial.

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That modern reverence makes the findings even more shocking by Ottawa historian Tim Cook, whose new book tells how World War I Canadian doctors snatched brains, bones and other body parts from the dead and shipped them back to Canada. , with the intention that they be public. display as museum pieces.

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The book, Lifesavers and Body Snatchers: Medical care and the fight for survival in the Great War, is Cook’s fourteenth book on the wars in this country.

Cook has spent 25 years researching Canada’s military archives. Still, he found the story of the harvesting of body parts “a shocking revelation.”

“It’s a story I’ve been researching for over a decade,” said Cook, chief historian and director of research at the Canadian War Museum. He had seen glimpses of it in official letters and records and even in some published histories of the war. And I was looking for these files in the National Archives for years and years and I couldn’t find them.”

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When he found the evidence in mislabeled or mislabeled files among the hundreds of thousands of World War I documents in the archives, he was astonished.

“Sometimes when you’re in the archives, you’re just taking notes or taking photos with your phone. This time she was reading every page because she couldn’t believe what she was reading: that Canadian doctors were part of this British imperial program to collect the body parts of murdered soldiers. Canadian brains, bones, lungs and everything else.”

The rationale for the program, conducted without consent or informing families, was to educate doctors about the nature of wounds found on the hideous new battlefields, where soldiers were ripped apart by shrapnel and shell splinters, mowed down by machine guns. and blistered and suffocated by poison gas. While the educational aspect was understandable, it’s harder to comprehend the next part, where the specimens were sent to McGill University, destined for display in a planned but never built museum.

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“I struggled with it,” Cook said. “It’s clearly part of a learning process and they learned from what they saw. That’s the first part of the book: the Lifeguards. But the second part is the Body Snatchers, and there’s a contradiction there that I had a hard time fitting into my own mind, trying to understand why doctors would do this: save lives, but also take body parts.”

Cook said the original fervor for the program among doctors, military brass and politicians suddenly ended in 1922, four years after the war ended.

“In 1922, it’s almost like there’s a sea change,” he said. “It’s like they suddenly realized this didn’t line up with the way Canadians thought about the dead. Thousands of memorials were being built in every city, town, and village. You can almost see in the records where they realize they have something they shouldn’t have.”

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The nearly 800 body parts were preserved and catalogued, but never displayed. They were eventually moved to Camp Borden in Ontario, where they were stored until the 1950s, when they were scrapped. Cook couldn’t figure out why or how.

“There is no record. I called everyone under the sun. But clearly they were unceremoniously destroyed.”

Cook knows the macabre practice will draw attention, but it shouldn’t detract from extraordinary medical care during “the war to end all wars.”

World War I saw the development of pioneering medical techniques such as X-ray machines, blood transfusions, battlefield surgeries, and even facial reconstruction for gruesome damage inflicted by bullets and shells.

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“If you could get to a doctor, nine out of 10 wounded soldiers would survive,” he said. “That is unbelievably high. But, as we know, tens of thousands of Canadian soldiers died in no man’s land. They were either blown to pieces or slowly bled to death, or died on the way back through the mud from Passchendaele to finally reach a doctor. That was the great challenge: the movement of the wounded.”

Historian Tim Cook's fourteenth book, Lifesavers and Body Snatchers, documents medical care during World War I.
Historian Tim Cook’s fourteenth book, Lifesavers and Body Snatchers, documents medical care during World War I. Photo by Wayne Cuddington /Ottawa Citizen

Some 60,000 Canadians died in World War I, a third of whom have no known graves.

Cook began writing the book at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and was struck by the modern parallels to the century-old war. Canada, for example, made vaccinations mandatory for its World War I soldiers to protect them from deadly diseases like smallpox and typhus. As a result, Canadian troops suffered far fewer losses from disease than British troops, who did not make vaccinations compulsory.

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In the last year of the war, the world was hit by another major pandemic, the Spanish flu, which killed 55,000 Canadians.

A harrowing chapter talks about the “shock of war” and the paralyzing effect of battle on the minds of soldiers.

“War neurosis is something that, before the war, very few doctors would have seen such a thing. It was baffling to the doctors and to the higher command,” Cook said.

“Treatments ranged from Freudian, like talking to soldiers and giving them lukewarm baths, to horrific, like electric shock therapy and belittling. One way to think of that is to think of war as a giant cauldron where doctors were trying out various techniques, some of them successful and life-saving, and some of them not.”

The irony of advances in medical care during a war was not lost on the doctors who served, nor the soldiers who fought. Cook quotes a medical officer who lamented the pressure he felt to heal soldiers and send them back to combat, being called “in the name of king and country” to “convince a sick man that he is not sick.”

Meanwhile, Sgt. PEI’s Frederick Bagnall wryly noted, “Science holds us to being killed by shells.”

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