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Wellcome Film of the Month: War neuroses

11 Nov, 2010

This month’s Wellcome Film of the Month, shows military patients before and after treatment for shell shock.

It is the most consulted film in the Wellcome Library and has been used in many television documentaries, particularly around the time of the Armistice on the 11th November to mark the end of the war on the Western front, and in remembrance of the many casualties of war. Other uses have been by the charity Combat Stress, which specialises in the care of Veterans’ mental health, and by the artist Douglas Gordon, famous for his multimedia installation ’24 Hour Psycho’, who created a piece entitled ‘Trigger Finger’ using footage from the film.

War neuroses shows two hospitals; Netley, 1917 and Seale Hayne, 1918. The patients are in the main privates, the lowest military rank. They were treated by two leading Royal Army Medical Corps neurologists towards the end of the First World War.

Captions tell us the men’s names, rank, medical condition, details of their symptoms and how long it took to complete the cure, which in one case was in two and a half hours. Clinical features shown include a variety of ataxic and ‘hysterical’ gaits; hysterical paralyses, contractures and anaesthesias; facial ties and spasms; loss of knee and ankle-jerk reflexes; paraplegia; “war hyperthyrodism”; amnesia; word-blindness and word-deafness.

Although there are no precise details of the kind of treatment given, apart from the description ‘cured and re-educated’, we do see a little physiotherapy and hypnotic suggestion in treatment, and of ‘cured’ men undertaking farm-work being drilled and performing a mock battle.

The film was cited in a 1918 article in ‘The Lancet by Dr. (later Sir) Arthur Hurst, F.R.C.P., and Dr. J.L.M. Symns, R.A.M.C. and M.R.C.

One patient mentioned in the article and identifiable in the film, Private R (Pte. Richards), is described as displaying “hysterical gait and swaying movements etc”. His admission to hospital is described: “We told him he would receive treatment which would certainly cure him two days later, but we did not intend to do so at once, as we wanted to obtain a kinematograph record of gait and tic. This was done at 10.AM on Jan 23rd [1918]”. The exact nature of the treatment can only be speculated upon.

Reference

  • Hurst AF and Symons JLM. The Rapid Cure of Hysterical Symptoms in Soldiers, The Lancet 1918;:39.

Wellcome Film

You can learn about the Wellcome Film project here. If you would like to make use of this archive footage in your own projects, please visit the Wellcome Library catalogue to download the original file, which is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence.

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