Soldiers lay in front of a tent.

Pathology in Perspective: Wartime Specimen Collecting and the Case of Private Hurdis’ Skull

Rarely does a debate about the bones of soldiers collected during World War I enter into public consciousness. But in recent weeks, the skull of an Australian soldier held by Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians made headlines after the museum removed it from display.

The Mütter Museum agreed to return the skull to the Australian Army before year’s end after military historians identified it as almost certainly that of Private Thomas Hurdis, who was wounded in Ypres in September 1917 and died five days later following treatment by a United States Army surgeon.

But Private Hurdis’ bones aren’t the only ones to have been collected and retained. Many of the media reports about Hurdis’ skull overlook the fact that the Australian Army Medical Corps (AAMC), alongside the British Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), collected over 770 pathological specimens from soldiers during World War I, including bones, organs, and limbs. Many of these 770 specimens are still housed today in the Australian War Memorial and at the University of Melbourne. The United States Army also collected specimens, a number of which can be found in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington D.C. The skull of Private Hurdis, therefore, fits into this larger story of World War I military medicine.

A skull, missing the jaw bone.
Skull on display at a museum. (pixabay | CC0)

The media reports raise concerns about the ease with which researchers uncovered the identity of the skull, in a breach of the anonymity that Australian medical specimens have historically been afforded. They also cite the lack of consent obtained for the collection and retention of the specimen and question its display on the Mütter Museum’s website alongside a graphic description of Hurdis’ wounds and his eventual death.1

But to understand more fully why the Mütter Museum has this Australian soldier’s skull, one must consider the larger context in which similar specimens were collected, and how medical students and teachers used, and continue to use, them. By unpacking the perspectives of physicians, medical historians, museum practitioners, and anthropologists on the matter, a broader narrative emerges.

In his news article, Australian writer and journalist Paul Daley labels specimens like Hurdis’ skull “institutional collection items” that serve as little more than objects of public curiosity. This is the perspective of some anthropologists, who consider the accumulation of battlefield specimens an “aberrant form of collecting,” akin to trophy hunting.2 There is evidence that some types of specimens were more sought after than others for their medical value or rarity.3

Rows of human skulls in a display case.
Human skulls on display in the Slovak National Museum. (Kiwiev/Wikimedia Commons)

According to anthropologist Simon Harrison, however, race is a key factor in the collection of body parts as war trophies, and it was “almost exclusively against enemies whom they have represented as belonging to ‘races’ other than their own.”4 As a specimen taken from an allied soldier, the case of Hurdis’ skull does not fit this criterion. Additionally, the Australian War Memorial’s official listing of medical specimen collecting as separate to the collection of other war trophies (such as artillery, rifles, and ammunition) further suggests that in the Australian experience, medical officers did not understand pathological specimens to be war trophies as Daley appears to suggest.

The work of physicians during and after the war, however, offers a different perspective. Soon after hostilities broke out, both the RAMC and the AAMC instructed Australian medical officers to collect and retain examples of disease and injury seen on the battlefield. Wounds resulting from projectiles, and infections like gas gangrene provided countless cases of physical and psychological trauma never before encountered by most medical officers.

The rationale for this collecting was laid out from the beginning in a letter from the Surgeon-General Neville Reginald Howse to No. 3 Australian Auxiliary Hospital: to “ensure a valuable collection of specimens…for purposes of record and teaching in Australian Medical Schools.”5

Royal Army Medical Corp news story featuring an injured soldier in a hospital bed.
Royal Army Medical Corp news story featuring an injured soldier in a hospital bed. (Wellcome Museum)

Howse and others who organized the specimen collecting effort — Captain Keith Inglis, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Newland — hoped that the specimens would inform medical officers about war time pathologies and help them improve treatments to reduce casualty rates.

Australian medical officers forwarded specimens to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, which became a depot for receiving and safeguarding pathological material until near the war’s end. Australian specimens arrived labelled with the name of the hospital from which it was sent, sometimes the name of the sending officer, but never the name of the person from whom the specimen was taken, to ensure anonymity. As such, the specimens resembled modern medical records, that bear hardly any trace of the patient’s identity. As a visual documentation of wounds and illness, physicians could study them in conjunction with written medical records.

At war’s end, Newland and Inglis, who were also prominent physicians, packed and sent the Australian specimen collection from London to Australian soil. It was divided up and sent to the Universities of Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide as teaching tools for medical students. Specimens were also kept in trust for the Australian states that had not yet opened medical schools.

During the 1920s and 1930s, returned medical officers shared research on the specimens in conference presentations. Their findings helped develop new techniques in military medicine, and also benefited the wider public, whose medical care was in many ways “the exact counterpart” of those in the Army.6 For example, in 1922, Dr E. Marjory Little gave a presentation about dysentery, illustrated with specimens collected from soldiers during the war.7 Little suggests how her research could improve treatment for both the military and civilian population, which demonstrates the contribution of the pathological war specimen collection to medical advancement in Australia.

Photo of a statue of a soldier carrying another soldier on his back.
A photograph of a statue on display in the Royal Academy. (RAMC Archives/Wellcome Library)

Despite the efforts of a small group of dedicated medical professionals to form the collection, it has largely been underutilized. After an initial flurry of use at the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne in the 1920s and 1930s, including a lecture by Professor Peter MacCallum to medical officers on the eve of World War II, many of the specimens were neglected and fell into poor condition.

The absence of evidence of the collection’s use raises questions as to whether it was formed in part by the collectors’ quest for reputation and prestige. Inglis’ dogged determination in 1919 to ensure that the British did not keep any of the rarest specimens also suggests that being held in the high esteem of colleagues was an important factor.8 Whatever the motivation, it is fair to say that much of the collection was not well maintained and did not have the long-lasting impact that those who initiated it had hoped.

That said, as late as the 1990s, students at the New South Wales Institute of Forensic Medicine (now the Department of Forensic Medicine) in Sydney learned about wartime pathology from a selection of the specimens, as intended by the original instigators of the collection.

Over time, some specimens have been destroyed and some have been rendered unusable due to deterioration. Others, however, remain part of active teaching collections, including at the Harry Brookes Allen Museum at the University of Melbourne, where even today, biomedical students learn about the pathology of war.

In 1996, the specimen collection made news with a parliamentary debate over the transfer of 155 specimens from the National Museum of Australia to the Australian War Memorial. Labelled “bizarre,” “gruesome,” and a “national disgrace,” this selection of specimens remains in the Australian War Memorial’s collection today.9

Photograph of the Australia War Museum from the front. A reflecting pool is surrounded by a large white stone edifice.
Australian War Museum. (Bidgee/Wikimedia Commons)

It is easy to feel uncomfortable with the collection and retention of human remains, especially those taken without consent from soldiers who perished during war. Indeed, there are complex ethical issues concerning human remains in museum collections. To combat this, in the past decade, most Australian museums have developed policies to repatriate and rehouse human specimens in their collections, particularly for the remains of Australian Indigenous people.10 In Australia, we are accustomed to the active response of our national museums to gently remove, and stop collecting, human remains. In part, these differences in the norms of museum display explain the shocked reaction to the discovery of Private Hurdis’ skull on public display in the Mütter Museum in the United States.

From a medical perspective, Australian medical officers accumulated the pathological war wound collection to provide Australian medical students with specimens from which to learn. Specimens were not collected to be displayed as curiosities to the public alongside identifying medical records.11 They were collected to ensure that medical knowledge and treatments could improve, and to limit casualties within the Australian Army and the civilian population back home.

Rather than be outright condemned as a controversial case of body snatching, the story of Private Hurdis’ skull should be understood as part of a larger network of collecting activity that contributed greatly to the advancement of medicine during World War I. This collecting, however, brings into question serious ethical issues such as consent and respect for the dead, and so the case also gives life to debates about the motivations behind collecting, and current museum practices surrounding the retention of human remains.

If viewed through a narrow lens, these complexities and perspectives are missed. Situating this episode in a broader narrative of medical history and its intersections with other disciplines will prevent such an interesting case from being obscured by confusion. Recognizing and acknowledging the associated ethical issues encourages us to reflect on the practices of the past, to improve them for the future.

Notes

  1. According to Paul Daley’s article in The Guardian, prior to its removal, the Mütter Museum’s website stated: “This Australian soldier’s skull has extensive damage caused by bullet wounds sustained in the Battle of Passchendale (or Third Ypres, Battle of Polygon Wood) in the First World War. He was shot on September 28, 1917. Most of the damage was caused by a lead bullet that entered the mouth and passed through the palate and right eye. Shrapnel destroyed the ascending ramus of the right jaw, and another bullet, visible here, struck the left frontal sinus. Philadelphia opthalmologist [sic] and surgeon WT Shoemaker treated this soldier at a battlefield hospital in France. This soldier survived his initial injuries and treatments. But, five days after his injuries, blind and disoriented, he pulled out the bandage materials in his mouth that packed the wounds. He bled to death.” Return to text.
  2. Simon Harrison, Dark Trophies: Hunting and the Enemy Body in Modern War (New York: Berghahn Books) 2012, 3. Return to text.
  3. In 1919, a dispute ensued between the British, who wanted to keep certain specimens, and the Australians, who fought to retain ‘the very cream’ of the collection, which included rare specimens. Australian War Memorial 737/21, Keith Inglis to Curator, Pathological Museum, Australian War Records, February 4, 1919. Return to text.
  4. Harrison, Dark Trophies, 4. Return to text.
  5. Australian War Memorial 737/21, NR Howse to O.C. No. 3 Australian Auxiliary Hospital, November 14, 1916. Return to text.
  6. Keith Inglis, “Gas Gangrene in Military and Civil Practice,” Medical Journal of Australia 1, no. 1 (January 1923): 7. Return to text.
  7. E. Marjory Little, “Dysentery: Bacillary and Amoebic,” Medical Journal of Australia 1, no. 1 (January 1923): 1-4. Return to text.
  8. See footnote 3. Return to text.
  9. “Body Parts Move Likely To Outrage,” Courier Mail, August 27, 1996.; Matthew Franklin, “Bizarre War Wounds Collection,” Courier Mail, June 27, 1996.; August 30, 1995, Herald Sun. Return to text.
  10. The exception is university anatomy and pathology museums, such as the Harry Brookes Allen Museum at the University of Melbourne, and the J.T. Wilson Museum of Human Anatomy at the University of Sydney, that are restricted only to biomedical students, staff, and approved researchers. These two museums have, however, also overseen programs for the repatriation of Australian Indigenous remains. See: Jack Lohman and Katherine Goodnow, eds., Human Remains and Museum Practice, (Spain: UNESCO, 2006). Return to text.
  11. A small selection of anonymous specimens has been displayed to the public in Australia only once, in 2015 at the Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne. The exhibition, Compassion and Courage, centered upon the experiences of Australian doctors and dentists during World War I. Return to text.

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