Exhibit shines light on MCV unit of doctors, nurses in World War I

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A new exhibit at Virginia Commonwealth University will display artifacts from Base Hospital 45, a unit of physicians and nurses trained at the Medical College of Virginia who served in France during World War I.

The exhibit at VCU Libraries' Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences opens on Veterans Day — Tuesday, Nov. 11 — and coincides with the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI.

"We wanted to highlight what the unit from MCV did during the Great War, but also talk about what health care and medicine was like at the time," said Jodi Koste, university archivist and head of Tompkins-McCaw Library Special Collections and Archives.

The unit of health care workers was formed in 1917 and commanded by Dr. Stuart McGuire, who at the time was dean of the Medical College of Virginia, which later became the VCU School of Medicine. The unit was deployed to France in July 1918 and worked out of a converted infantry barracks in Toul, roughly eight miles from the front lines. The hospital treated 17,438 casualties, though only 350 lives were lost.

The exhibit will feature a number of artifacts, including a surgeon's uniform that belonged to Dr. Robert Grant Willis, who graduated from the University College of Medicine in 1913 and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Army in October 1917.

It will also feature the outdoor nurse's uniform of Ethlynde Smith, a 1915 graduate of the Virginia City Hospital, two steamer trunks from Base Hospital 45, a surgeon's field kit and dental instruments, photos and more.

The exhibit will also discuss the 1918 influenza pandemic, which had an impact on MCV and the war effort.

Koste said the exhibit will shed light on the contributions by the Medical College of Virginia to a war that is often overshadowed by World War II.

"There hasn't historically been a lot of focus on WWI. But as you delve into it, it's a very interesting time period because it brought on a lot of changes," she said.

Notably, she said, WWI directly led to the decision by MCV's Board of Visitors to begin admitting women to train as physicians and dentists.

Koste will give a brief talk at the exhibit's opening about the exhibit, the war, MCV's role and the impact on the medical school at 3 p.m., Nov. 11 at Tompkins-McCaw Library, 509 N. 12th St., Richmond.