December 4

This Day in History

World War I

Dec 4, 1917:

Psychiatrist reports on the phenomenon of shell shock

Well-known psychiatrist W.H. Rivers presents his report The Repression of War Experience, based on his work at Britain s Craiglockhart War Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers, to the Royal School of Medicine, on this day in 1917. Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, was one of the most famous hospitals used to treat soldiers who suffered from psychological traumas as a result of their service on the battlefield.

By the end of World War I, the army had been forced to deal with 80,000 cases of "shell shock," a term first used in 1917 by a medical officer named Charles Myers to describe the physical damage done to soldiers on the front lines during exposure to heavy bombardment. It soon became clear, however, that the various symptoms of shell shock?including debilitating anxiety, persistent nightmares, and physical afflictions ranging from diarrhea to loss of sight?were appearing even in soldiers who had never been directly under bombardment, and the meaning of the term was broadened to include not only the physical but the psychological effects produced by the experience of combat.

The most important duty of doctors like Rivers, as prescribed by the British army, was to get the men fit and ready to return to battle. Nevertheless, only one-fifth of the men treated in hospitals for shell shock ever resumed military duty. Rivers's patients included the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who later wrote of his fellow inmates of Craiglockhart: These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished/Memory fingers in their hair of murders/Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.

 

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