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NLM Exhibit on War and Trauma

The National Library of Medicine's History of Medicine Division has mounted a new exhibit, "'Strange Hells Within the Minds War Made': War and Trauma in the 20th Century." It opened Nov. 9 and will remain in the glass cases inside and outside the HMD reading room until May 31, 2005.

Within the first few months of the start of World War I, British army physicians began to see a new and disturbing condition among soldiers. Troops suffered from a wide array of disabling symptoms, both mental and physical, with no apparent physical cause. Blamed at first on the percussive effect of high explosives on the nervous system, the condition was called "shell shock." It soon became clear, however, that the cause was not physical.

Taken during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), Belgium, July 31-Nov. 10, 1917, this photograph shows five soldiers making their way gingerly across a duckboard track. The path takes them over shell holes filled with water and we see gaunt tree trunks in the misty background — Chateau Wood.

This exhibit shows how shell shock manifested itself during World War I, the conditions of the Western Front that contributed to it, the medical response to it and its literary heritage. It traces the 19th century antecedents of shell shock — hysteria, neurasthenia and railway spine — and its later manifestations — battle fatigue and posttraumatic stress disorder — in the wars and civil disasters of the 20th century.

The exhibit curator, Carol Clausen, says the inspiration for the exhibit was a novel, Pat Barker's Regeneration, which takes place in a hospital for British officers suffering from shell shock. Two major war poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, were treated there. Clausen, an HMD librarian, began to explore the sources on which the novel was based, writings by and about Sassoon and Owen and their therapists, W.H.R. Rivers and Arthur Brock. Her interest grew to include the history and literary heritage of the first World War and of the psychological disorders caused by war. The exhibit was designed with the assistance of Joe Fitzgerald, NLM's chief of graphics.

The two main cases display a large number of authentic artifacts of the first World War, suggesting a scene in "no man's land," where the fighting took place, and a trench, where the troops and their officers lived for most of the war. Recordings of popular songs of the war and readings of war poetry accompany the exhibit.

The exhibition title comes from a poem by Ivor Gurney, an English poet and composer who served as a private in World War I.

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