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From 1917: Wisconsin military surgeon offers personal hygiene tips for World War I soldiers

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Wisconsin physicians answered the call to duty.

A month after the United States declared war on Germany, an editorial in WMJ from the Wisconsin Committee for Medical Preparedness in Waupun asked for volunteers to the Medical Officers Reserve Corps. Wisconsin was expected to have 600 physicians “ready and able to do their share if they are needed.” And by September, the “News Items and Personals” section of WMJ was filled with accounts of physicians entering the reserves or moving to a different post.

Gilbert E. Seaman, MD, FACS, of Milwaukee, who served as Society president from 1908 to 1909, held the rank of major and was the chief general surgeon of the Wisconsin National Guard at the time. As a surgeon, he was well-versed with military surgery and wrote extensively in WMJ about caring for wounds and infections. But he also lent his medical and military expertise in another realm. Of particular note is a lecture Dr. Seaman gave titled “Personal Hygiene For Soldiers”—an abstract of which was published in June, 1917.

One of the areas Dr. Seaman touched on was the avoidance of alcohol, noting that it was the duty of medical officers to instruct and advise the soldiers on alcohol’s harmful effects—depression, exhaustion, predisposition to infections, illnesses and disease—and to encourage temperance.

“The solider should be taught that alcohol is not a food, that it does not promote warmth, that it does not increase strength or endurance,” he said, also noting that strong, black coffee three times a day, whether in pints or quarts, was way too much. Water, on the other hand, was a must, he said. While out on the field or on a day’s march, soldiers only needed what could be carried in their canteen, and it should be filled with water from a known safe supply. If not, any water coming from an unknown source had to first be boiled for 20 minutes to render it safe to drink.

And while Dr. Seaman saw great benefit to twice weekly baths during the summer and once a week during the winter, he said soldiers should stay away from sharing a common towel, handkerchief or cloth with others in their camp. To do so would create the potential for the spread of parasitic and skin diseases.

Test your knowledge!

Can you name a past Society president who is related by marriage to Charles and George Crownhart? If you know the answer or would like to take a guess, e-mail Jennifer Wieman by noon, Wednesday, May 18.

Thomas Zoch, MD, correctly answered last week’s question: Jesse George Crownhart and his brother, Charles, both served as executive secretary (CEO) of the Wisconsin Medical Society. George Crownhart was hired in 1923 and remained in that position until his death in 1941. Charles succeeded his brother in 1942, becoming the Society’s second executive secretary. He retired in 1970.

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