In the final few days of October 1916, Dr. Edwin Seaborn spent a day in London, shopping with friends and running into acquaintances. He attended a dinner party with colleagues. He also studied the medical equipment at a nearby hospital.
The week, however, was an exceptional one.
He was not in his hometown of London, Ont., taking a break from his medical practice and teaching duties. Instead, he was in London, England, awaiting orders for his medical unit. The people with him were part of the No. 10 Stationary Hospital, and the people he ran into had similarly left their lives at home to participate in the First World War. He was not at the hospital to visit patients or consult on cases, but for the time being was stationed at Orpington Hospital where he studied the function and form of military hospitals.
At the beginning of the war, several universities in Canada funded their own medical units, comprised of personnel from their medical faculty and students. There were several different types of units: field ambulances, casualty clearing stations, stationary hospitals and general hospitals. The majority of universities supplied a stationary or general hospital, then, as the need for medical care increased, so did the size of the hospital.
The Canadian Military supplied some equipment to the hospitals, however, each unit also had funding from their surrounding communities that altered their ability to provide medical care.
In 1915, the University of Western Ontario submitted a bid for a 200-bed stationary hospital, but only received a refusal of services. A mix of pride, duty and comradeship with other educational institutions had Western resubmitting a bid in March of the New Year. It was on April 28, 1916, that the university’s Board of Governors, including President Braithwaite, received permission to form a unit.
The board elected Seaborn – later known as Lieutenant-Colonel Seaborn – as Commanding Officer for the unit. He was in charge of recruiting its medical staff and ancillary personnel, as well as the necessary fundraising for outfitting the unit. He worked closely with the university, as well as several volunteer groups, like the Canadian Red Cross Society, in order to ready the unit in quick order.
Between medical and ancillary personnel, roughly 140 men participated in the unit. While medical faculty and students had already joined the war effort in previous years, the unit prompted more staff and students to join. The entire Medical Class of 1916 joined the war effort, as did several faculty members. Seaborn also recruited alumni from the university, as well as medical professionals working in London and the surrounding area. Many community members who were not affiliated with the university also participated in the effort, by filling non-medical positions, volunteering or offering monetary donations.
At the beginning of September, rather than preparing for the new semester, the unit departed for England. They spent a couple of months touring the surrounding area and participating in military drills. On Oct. 31, 1916 the unit received orders to send a portion of its personnel to the Seaford Military Hospital.
Quickly after establishing the hospital at Seaford, all members of the unit came together to move to Eastbourne on Jan. 21, 1917. From Dec. 25, 1917 to April 14, 1919, they were stationed in Calais, France. The Western unit was successful in its efforts, helping thousands of wounded soldiers and expanding to a 1,000-bed capacity over their work with three hospitals.
The medical units were mobile and could be placed wherever the military required medical aid. Each new location brought different challenges and conditions that impacted the unit. In some places, they used a repurposed building for shelter, and in others, they pitched huts. For the remainder of the year, the unit stayed at Ravenscroft, a former private school. With each new location, the unit was expected to set up the hospital, organize all personnel and care for the wounded.
Due to the nature of military service, the unit was divided throughout the war, and the medical staff was subject to rotation. Seaborn was aided by Matron H.E. Dulmage, who supervised the nursing sisters. Despite being far from home, they still saw familiar faces and had connections to those they left behind.
As commanding officer for the unit, Seaborn kept communication with the university, military, colleagues at home and overseas, and family members. He used discretion to aid soldiers in the hospital, and kept a watchful eye out for the members of his unit and those he knew from his life and practice at home.
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HONOURING OUR HEROES
Western will commemorate Dr. Edwin Seaborn, MD’1895, and his service during the First World War at community lecture and plaque unveiling at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1 in Medical Sciences Building, Room 146. History PhD candidate Nina Bozzo will highlight the efforts of Seaborn, who served as Lieutenant-Colonel of the No. 10 Stationary Hospital established by Western University in England.
Nina Bozzo is a PhD candidate in History. She is currently working on her dissertation, ‘Duty or Care? Canadian University Funded Medical Units During the First World War.’