Fantastic Finds for Friday: One RCOG Fellow and the Second World War

Our Fantastic Find for Friday comes from the papers of RCOG President, Sir Eardley Holland, who was President between 1943 and 1945.

In the summer of 1945, Sir Eardley received a letter from College Fellow, Major Hugh McLaren, who was serving with No.10 British Casualty Clearing Station as part of the British Liberation Army in Europe. Major McLaren had been part of the team involved in the liberation of the camp at Sandbostel, near Bremen, north-western Germany, which held both Prisoners of War and ‘political’ prisoners, the majority of whom were Jewish civilians. On 28 June 1945, McLaren sent Sir Eardley ‘some notes I made while at Sandbostel Horror Camp’ which he suggested might be made available in the College Library if thought ‘worth-while and suitable’. The notes consisted of seven pages of cyclostyled pages documenting his experiences at Sandbostel following its liberation in May 1945, including details of the horrific conditions in which inmates were held, the efforts of medical officers to assist the ill and dying, and the attitudes of nursing staff and civilian women drafted in to assist. He describes the ‘human laundry’ where survivors were sent to be washed, covered in DDT (anti-louse) powder, and wrapped in a clean blanket before being transferred by stretcher and ambulance to the camp hospital. The apathy among the prisoners, in particular the ‘severely emaciated cases’. The extreme efforts of the medical team to endure the testing conditions:

Among the medical officers bets were being made as to which sister would be first to break down. But none of them did break down. They became whiter and whiter in the face. Dark patches were visible under their eyes but it was the German sisters who first went sick or lame. I think the splendid work of the German sisters and women helpers was partly a result of the example shown by the British sisters.’

McLaren was so moved by his experiences that he sought to share them with his fellow medics at home, and probably soon after Sir Eardley replied to this letter, a bound and edited copy of this report was housed in the College library. A copy can also be found at the Imperial War Museum (which, coincidentally, is where I first came across it as a young archivist working at the IWM). McLaren went on to work overseas, and the College hold reports of his work in Ethiopia and Rhodesia, using his influence as Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Birmingham during the 1960s.
Scene in the blood transfusion ward at Sandbostel Comcentration Camp, May 1945 (copyright of the IWM)

The full report can be found as a special collection under Hugh McLaren’s name in the College Archive (Reference S56), but the existence of this note and report among the President’s papers is made more significant by the photograph (not shown here) which accompanies it simply annotated ‘One of the hundreds of unknown men we buried, 6 May 1945’. 69 years later it is a reminder of the efforts of medical men and women who sought to help victims of such tragedies.


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