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New exhibit at military medical museum features gas warfare during World War I

Two soldiers participate in gas warfare training at Fort Myer, Virginia in 1917. Soldiers were drilled to maintain “gas discipline” and use their gas mask at the first instant the presence of chemical agents are detected. (Reeve 001061, Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine) Two soldiers participate in gas warfare training at Fort Myer, Virginia in 1917. Soldiers were drilled to maintain “gas discipline” and use their gas mask at the first instant the presence of chemical agents are detected. (Reeve 001061, Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine)

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SILVER SPRING, Md. — The advent of chemical warfare on the battlefield remains one of the most terrifying legacies of World War I.

A new exhibit at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM), a Department of Defense museum in Silver Spring, Maryland, reveals how American military medicine responded to chemical warfare on the battlefields of France during the Great War. The new exhibit and related programming are elements of the museum’s World War I centennial commemoration.

The new exhibit – PUT ON YOUR MASK, YOU DAMN FOOL!  – features rare watercolor paintings made by Army Medical Museum illustrators as they documented the scope and scale of the damage done by chemical weapons on the human body. The Army Medical Museum (today known as NMHM) dispatched illustrators, photographers, and museum personnel to France in 1918 to collect specimens and record the work of military medicine on the battlefields. The watercolor paintings reveal the artist’s view of the physical damage done to soldiers injured during chemical attacks on the battlefield. Their work was critically important to gas treatment research being conducted by military and civilian medical researchers. Black and white photography was insufficient for their needs, so medical illustration became one method to convey the diversity of trauma caused by gas exposure.

Watercolor paintings such as this one documented the traumatic effects of chemical exposure on soldiers during World War I. Color paintings were more illustrative of the nature of the injuries than black-and-white photos of that period. The Army Medical Museum dispatched illustrators to France to document injuries such as this one during and after war. This painting depicts Private Jacob Leifer of New York, New York, Company M, 16th Infantry, showing extensive first-degree mustard gas burns on Leifer’s entire back. Leifer died of bronchopneumonia due to gas poisoning and was autopsied at Base Hospital No. 15, Chaumont, France, on October 10, 1918. The artist, Sgt. Elliott R. Brainard of New York (1894-1937) was assigned to Museum Unit 1, and after the war, he worked at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C. (Artist: Sgt. E. Brainard, watercolor, gouache, 1918) (Brainard 00002/ OHA 229.39.05, Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine)Watercolor paintings such as this one documented the traumatic effects of chemical exposure on soldiers during World War I. Color paintings were more illustrative of the nature of the injuries than black-and-white photos of that period. The Army Medical Museum dispatched illustrators to France to document injuries such as this one during and after war. This painting depicts Private Jacob Leifer of New York, New York, Company M, 16th Infantry, showing extensive first-degree mustard gas burns on Leifer’s entire back. Leifer died of bronchopneumonia due to gas poisoning and was autopsied at Base Hospital No. 15, Chaumont, France, on October 10, 1918. The artist, Sgt. Elliott R. Brainard of New York (1894-1937) was assigned to Museum Unit 1, and after the war, he worked at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C. (Artist: Sgt. E. Brainard, watercolor, gouache, 1918) (Brainard 00002/ OHA 229.39.05, Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine)

The exhibit includes a mural reproduction of “Gassed” by John Singer Sargent, commissioned in 1918 by the British Ministry of Information for a national Hall of Remembrance. “Gassed” is an iconic work documenting a scene Sargent witnessed in July 1918, at Bac-du-sud near Arras in France, documenting British soldiers’ injuries after exposure to gas warfare. The mural, reproduced with special permission from the Imperial War Museum in London, spans the museum’s moving aisle system in its visible collections management facility.

Alongside the “Gassed” mural, NMHM will display five original sketches Sargent made as he studied his subjects in advance of completing “Gassed” in 1919. The sketches are on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Each original sketch will be on display at NMHM for about three months at a time, through 2018 and into early 2019.

PUT ON YOUR MASK, YOU DAMN FOOL! documents how American Expeditionary Forces soldiers were trained to withstand the effects of chemical attacks, and what happened when “gas discipline” failed. Photographs show the steps taken on the battlefield and in hospitals to treat effects of chemical attacks and restore men to the line. An original protective mask worn by a soldier who served during World War I is included in the exhibit (on loan from the Leichliter Family), alongside this comment describing one soldier’s experience wearing the protective device:

After a while I became aware of a different sound...the dull thud caused by gas shells. A moment later and I could smell the deadly poison. I reached for my trusted gas mask and, much as I dreaded to do so, pulled it on. The mask is safe, but it is the most uncomfortable thing I ever experienced. If [anyone wants to] know how a gas mask feels, let him seize his nose with a pair of fire tongs, bury his face in a hot feather pillow, then seize a gas pipe with his teeth and breathe through it for a few hours while he performs routine duties. It is safe, but, like the deadly poison which forced its invention, it is not sane....” (Major William E. Boyce, medical officer, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry, near Chateau Thierry, July 1918.)

The exhibit spotlights artifacts and specimens from the museum’s Historical and Anatomical Collections, as well as photographs and paintings from the NMHM’s Otis Historical Archives.

Finally, the exhibit reveals a lasting legacy of gas warfare from the Great War: today’s service members are trained and equipped to combat a wide array of chemical warfare threats. Chemical warfare training today even benefits humanitarian missions, such as the response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014.

PUT ON YOUR MASK, YOU DAMN FOOL! opened February 12, 2018 at NMHM in Silver Spring. The exhibit is on display through 2018.

NMHM is a component of the Defense Health Agency, Research and Acquisition Directorate. NMHM is located at 2500 Linden Lane, Silver Spring, MD. The museum is open daily 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., including weekends and holidays (except Dec. 25). Admission and parking are free. Learn more about NMHM online at www.medicalmuseum.mil

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