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Science and the First World War

Siobhan Pipa9 July 2014

German scientist Fritz Haber

German scientist Fritz Haber

The relationship between science, technology and warfare is a topic I find incredibly intriguing – partially kick-started from taking a module in Science, Warfare and Peace back when I was an undergraduate in UCL Science & Technology Studies.

So, with high hopes I headed down to The Guardian offices to watch the final instalment of UCL’s Lunch Hour Lectures on Tour – given by Professor Jon Agar (UCL Science & Technology Studies), titled Science and the First World War.

Opening with the haunting image of ‘We are making a new world’ by Paul Nash, Professor Agar points out that there is frequently no force so associated with the making of a new world as science.

If there’s one thing I took away from my undergraduate degree, it’s that science, like nearly every other topic in the world, is not an isolated endeavour – there are always outside influences at play.

And there is probably no bigger outside influence than the First World War. Often considered the first ‘total war’, science was driven and transformed by the events of a hundred years ago.

Along with shaping the path science took during this period, the First World War also raised a number of profound and troubling questions about the very nature of science.

Is science a force for construction? Or is it a force of destruction? Does science transcend international boundaries or should science be recruited to further a country’s cause? How should scientists be used during warfare and is there a way to organise science in the most efficient way?

Using some of the most prominent scientists of the First World War, Professor Agar proceeded to examine these themes at a much more personal and intimate level.

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Reconstructing Broken Bodies: From Industrial Warfare to Industrial Engineered Tissues

zclef785 July 2014

An illuminating and occasionally gruesome lecture for a non-medic unused to the visual realities of war, the third of the series UCL Lunch Hour Lectures on Tour marking the centenary of the First World War tackled a rarely discussed aspect of the aftermath of trench warfare.

Tonk's, Portrait of a Wounded Soldier Before Treatment Credit: UCL Art Museum

Henry Tonks, Portrait of a Wounded
Soldier Before Treatment

Credit: UCL Art Museum

The idea of the fabrication of living tissues to repair injuries is well publicised in the media today, from growing an ear on the back of a mouse, to full face transplants.

However, the development of reconstructive techniques was largely precipitated by the industrial scale of conflict in WW1.

Sadly, Professor Robert Brown (UCL Surgical Science) was unable to attend, so we were left in the capable hands of Colin Hopper (UCL Eastman Dental Institute) who delivered both the historical and medical sides of the lecture with distinctive candour.

Early medical advances

I was unconvinced that a GCSE in Biology would get me through the finer points of tissue fabrication, so it was a relief that we began with the historical context of medical advances during military conflicts since the early 1800s.

The fact that disease was responsible for a large number of deaths during the wars between 1804-15 was hardly a surprise, but the scale of the death–nearly 266,000 of the 311,806 deaths (85%) in the Army and Navy–showed just how much of an impact developments in medicine made to survival rates in future conflicts.

Changes in strategy and weaponry in WW1 caused a significant increase in the number of soldiers who sustained head and limb injuries, yet over 92% of wounded British soldiers evacuated to British medical camps survived. Some fairly horrific slides of facial injuries from more recent Iraqi and Libyan conflicts demonstrated the consequences of the types of weaponry used a hundred years earlier. Major General Henry Shrapnel has a lot to answer for.

As a head and neck surgeon, Colin was interested to know how much the audience thought a person needed of their face to survive. Drawing a line running from the top of the head and behind the ears with his hand, he revealed that anything below that line is an “optional extra”–who needs frontal lobes?

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Sex and the Somme

Ben Stevens H P Stevens26 June 2014

As the First World War centenary commemorations continue apace, there is a risk that inconvenient truths about the war will be quietly airbrushed from the official record.

One particular area that some may like to ignore is the use of brothels by British troops or ‘Tommies’ while in France and Belgium.

UCL Media Services © University College London

UCL Media Services © University College London

Dr Clare Makepeace (UCL History) made it the focus of her lecture ‘Sex and the Somme’ on 18 June, which was the first in a new series of First World War –themed Lunch Hour Lectures on Tour at the Guardian’s London offices.

She began by explaining how when the Tommies set off, each one was dispatched with a message from Lord Kitchener folded into their pay books. In it, he reminded them that the honour of the British Army depended on their conduct and warned them to “be on guard against excesses” especially “temptations both in wine and women” and to “avoid any intimacy”. (more…)