Boston, Downton and spinal injuries in World War I

…or, an excuse to write about “Downton Abbey.” If you didn’t watch last night, know that we give away a major development, aka spoiler alert. After dismissing it as just another period drama, we admit, we’ve been sucked into BBC WWI-era soap opera.

Wondering about whether Matthew Crawley could recover from this battle wounds, we went looking for a Boston link to surgical options of the time.  What we learned is that a Mass General surgeon traveled to Europe after the war and returned to write a book about how the German treated their war wounded. Through the miracle of expired copyright and the Internet, we found a linkt to the book, reported in 2002 VA study. The paper notes that Philip D. Wilson from Massachusetts General Hospital, traveled to Germany to study “prosthetics, orthotics, and work aids” for WWI veterans

Physicians such at Philip D. Wilson from (Masschusetts General Hospital in ) America were sent to Europe after World War I to study amputation methods and fitting concepts. One of these trips resulted in a document entitled, “Lessons from the Enemy.” There was much to learn from both ally and enemy. German methods in prosthetics, orthotics, and work aids at that time are well documented in the classic volumes of Erzatzglieder und Arbeitshilfen (Replacement Limbs and Work Aids) published in 1919. It clearly may be considered one of the first major publications in the field of rehabilitation engineering. Many ideas presented in this vintage publication remain valid today.

Here’s a link to the actual study, which is a bit short of treatments for spinal injuries, but give a nice picture of the medical problems that emerged from the war. Wilson did not pen it, but apparently contributed:

Grimly, a post on the Christopher Reeve foundation website cited the unsourced statistic that “in World War I, only 2% of the veterans with spinal-cord injuries survived more than a year”

More on the history of spinal cord injuries here.


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