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Exhibit Honors Northwestern Doctors And Nurses Who Served In World War II Hospital Unit

Photos of medical procedures, maps of Italy and even a trophy for a military baseball team are part of a new exhibit opening Wednesday at Northwestern University’s Galter Health Sciences Library and Learning Center.

The exhibit honors the doctors and nurses affiliated with the university who served in World War II. They were part of the 12th General Hospital Unit that served in Algeria and Italy.

Gabrielle Barr is a researcher who focuses on medical history and curator of the exhibit.

Barr said she wanted to feature the collection now while relatives of the doctors and nurses featured are still alive. But, she said, the focus isn’t solely about the medical procedures they performed.

“There is a lot of personal stories,” Barr said. “I think that’s what makes this collection really special.” There are more than 600 photographs, maps, patient files and other ephemera that were donated to the library by Michael L. Mason and James A. Conner. Mason and Connor were physicians who served in the unit and taught at Northwestern.

The exhibit includes interviews with the unit’s chief nurse, Katherine Baltz. Barr said, over the course of the war, Baltz managed more than 130 nurses. Baltz also recruited 120 nurses in three weeks to serve in the unit at the start of the unit’s deployment, Barr said.

“[Baltz] ran a really tight ship, and her girls really loved her,” Barr said. Baltz was really respected throughout the unit, even though she was the youngest chief nurses of all the units serving at the time.

Katherine Baltz (left) and Collegue
Galter Health Sciences Library & Learning Center/Northwestern University
Katherine Baltz (left) and colleague in Ain el-Turck, 1943.

The photos featured show the many tasks nurses played in addition to providing medical care. “They did a lot of other things like creating bandages,” Barr said. “They had to go and cajole the carpenters to make cabinets for them for medication.”

The 12th General Hospital Unit also specialized in treating venereal diseases. Barr said a diagnosis of gonorrhea, for example, disqualified young men for service in previous wars. But, she added, the army wanted these young men on the front lines. “So there was a concentrated effort to try to treat this and manage this.”

Barr said the breadth of the material, which includes patient case files and poetry written by soldiers, is another reason she wanted the collection on display and open to the public.

But the researcher and curator said she wanted the exhibit to show “the multiplicity of experiences.” Barr pointed to images that range from “a doctor performing research on hepatitis to an enlisted man literally carrying a [stretcher] up five flights of steps when they were in Rome.”

The physical display of the collection opens Aug. 14, but the materials can also be viewed online.

Carrie Shepherd is a news reporter for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @cshepherd.

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