Reviewer: Sandra Moss, MD, MA, Medical Historical Society of New Jersey
March 5, 2021
George Hill, a retired military surgeon with advanced degrees in history, is uniquely placed to edit the wartime correspondence of William T. Shoemaker, a prominent Philadelphia ophthalmologist. The treasure trove of correspondence between Shoemaker and his family (wife Mabel, children Dorothy–21, Warren–19, Ted–17, Barbara–15, and Bob–13) deserves a permanent place in the history of American involvement in the medical side of the Allied war effort.
Hill initially approached the wartime correspondence as a valuable addition to his family history. However, his careful editing and commentary have resulted in an important contribution to the medical history of the final year of the war as seen through the lived experience of a middle-aged volunteer surgeon.
War Letters reminds us that a century ago, American medical units—staffed by volunteer surgeons, nurses, and support personnel from major Stateside hospitals — treated allied military casualties as well as Americans. The Shoemaker correspondence, extending from his deployment in May 1917, a month after the American declaration of war, until late December, 1918 (two months after the Armistice), provides a unique window into one such volunteer unit.
With careful editing and informative notes, Hill allows Shoemaker and his family to speak in their own voices through their nineteen months of correspondence. Though focused mainly on Shoemaker’s posting with his unit at United States Base Hospital No. 10 at Le Tréport on the Normandy coast (bookended by short stays in London) he also writes about the dangerous Atlantic and English Channel crossing, visits to Paris and other French cities, and short trips to British medical facilities.
Shoemaker clearly adores and respects his wife and is in general very supportive. Mabel is left to deal with straitened family finances due to loss of income from private practice and hospital work. Shoemaker wavers between long distance micromanagement and expressions of trust in her decisions. With few exceptions, Shoemaker is proud of his wife. The rare chastisements center on Mabel’s sharing of his letters with some of her clubwomen and an irritating relative. He frets for months about her apparent weight loss, a potentially ominous sign in the medical world of a century ago. His suspended private medical practice is, of course, a constant source of worry.
As one might expect, the five Shoemaker children—their private schooling, the enlistment of one son (posted on the French Swiss border), and the illness of another, as well as the social doings of the two girls—are frequent topics of discussion. Letters from the children are both dutiful and loving.
The letters home are laced with petty frustrations—censorship, the physical deprivations of camp life, and delayed mail. Lack of advancement in rank—linked to increases in his meager pay—also rankles. Shoemaker, though ever patriotic, grows increasingly bitter about the seemingly endless war (he anticipated a much swifter surrender once the Americans joined the Allies), the Army administration, and his medical colleagues back home whom he views as manipulative shirkers. Though he tries not to burden Mabel, some letters hint at serious frustration and, perhaps, depression. What we would call “mood swings” seem to increase as the war drags on.
Shoemaker’s wit, whether light or biting, leavens much of his frequent descent into bitterness and frustration. He seems most content (or at least fulfilled) when busy with convoy after convoy of wounded men on the ophthalmology and general wards. Social chit-chat from Mabel and his older daughter strengthen the bonds of home, as does school news from his sons, the eldest of whom arrives in France late in the war.