Canada’s Soldiers, Forced in the Field to Believe That Nearly All Illness Was Simply a Matter of the Imagination, or at the Worst a No. 9 Pill, Now Have the Idea that They Can Get Along Without Doctors Altogether – What a Change Has Come Over the M.O.’S.
By Greg Clark, February 28, 1920
The war has put a serious crimp in the medical profession.
Not that doctors fell down – far from it. In the pure advancement of the science of medicine and surgery, the war may be said to have speeded the profession up to unparalleled pitch.
But the practice of the profession has certainly suffered in so far as It concerns half a million Canadian soldiers, their wives, dependents and next of kin.
Picture the Medical Officer at war. Ho was merely a doctor in uniform. Yet, oh, what a difference —
You felt sick and sore all over. Your stomach had a far-away, detached feeling. There were shooting pains in your joints and your head was dizzy.
So you went to the Medical Officer, with that old unerring Instinct that, in prettier days, made you telephone for the same gentleman in civies, to call on you in your bed —
Aye, with that mournfullest of bugle calls, the Reveille, blatting in your ears, you rose in the chilly morn, and stumbled, sick, sore and half-clad, down to the Medical Officer’s billet.
You found him sitting, with his cap over one ear, in his raincoat over his pyjamas He glared at you with an undisguised professional eye. A hard, flinty and skeptical eye that seemed to penetrate your tibia, tarsus and medulla oblongata.
“Well!” said he.
“Sir, I’m sick,” you replied. “I’m dizzy and have pains here and here, and a sort of –“.
“Sergeant,” said the Medical Officer, “one ounce of oil and a number nine for this man. And mark him light duty!”
Pfft! All over in a twinkling.
Oil! Number nine! Ugh! Light duty! Ye shades of Caesar and D’Artagnan and General Byng! Was ever a poor soldier so whelmed in ignominy, so bereft of heart! Oh, the swing and the swank and the swagger of the carefree soldier’s life!
Reader, dost know what light duty is? Peeling potatoes for the cook, skimming grease off dixies of mulligan, sweeping out billets, emptying swill.
Somehow, you swallowed the oil and the pill under the marble eye of the Medical Sergeant. Somehow you staggered back to your billet and reported to the orderly corporal for light duty. Somehow the daylight nightmare passed, and at eventide as you laid you in your chicken-wire bunk amid the fumes of charcoal braziers and drying socks, you made a vow never to “parade sick” again, but to die, like a martyr, in your tracks some day, in the heat of battle, the victim of a malignant disease, while bullets passed you harmlessly by.
Yet, never was a healthier army known. Never did men smash all the medical rules with such impunity. Sitting in slush, wallowing in mud, sleeping all the sunny day in deep and damp and foul-aired dugouts and sitting in all night in the damp, chilly, night air. Nine men out of ten should have died of pneumonia or galloping decline. But they didn’t. A marvellous medical corps shot you a pill or a spoon of oil or merely a stern glance, and lo, all ailments vanished.
The soldier came to the conclusion that practically all illness is largely a matter of Imagination or at worst a simple matter of pills.
But the soldier comes home. Back to the soft bed, the steam heated billet, the umbrellas, the rubbers and the regular hours.
One day, he feels sick. Pains in his joints, dizzy of head, and so on.
And an almost forgotten instinct twigs him. With a mysterious smile on his face, he calls on the doctor.
He is ushered into a quiet, solemn little room. Presently a grave, but friendly gentleman enters. He shakes hands and eyes the patient with kindly and solicitous eye.
“Sir,” says the ex-soldier, a faint memory prompting him, “I’m sick. I’m dizzy and have pains here and here; and a sort of –“
“Mmm!” says the doctor, sympathetically.
“Yes,” continues the ex-soldier, “and I can’t eat, and my stomach feels far-away, kind of.”
“Mmm!” repeats the doctor. “Have you been this way long?”
“No, just since this morning.”
“Have you been eating meat?”
“Mmm! Let me see your tongue.”
Then the doctor takes his pulse and temperature, sounds his chest and back – scares the poor ex-soldier into a fit.
Mmmmm!” says the doctor, “Mmmm! Er – would your business permit you to lay off for a week or so?”
“Yes,” murmurs the awed ex-soldier.
“Very well. Go home,” says the doctor, “and go to bed. I shall call and prescribe certain things.”
So the patient hastens home with wobbly knees and crawls into bed.
The doctor calls twice a day for a week, feels pulse, takes temperature, prescribes dark medicine and Pulls Him Through!
But somewhere in this procedure the ex-soldier comes alive. He startles his poor wife half to death by suddenly bursting into wild laughter as he lies on his sick-bed. He has remembered. The incongruity of the thing has hit him. Again he can hear reveille sadly waking the morn with its flat ta-too, ta-too! The chilly crawl to the M.O.’s billet, the brief, disappointing interview —
“Hurroo!” yells the ex-soldier and leaps out of bed and confounds the doctor, when he calls, with a glance.
As we know now, much of the influenza was due to laymen trying to doctor themselves with various pills and powders and to fear. The best preventive of flu is to wear the hat at a jaunty angle over the ear.
But the returned soldier strikes the happy medium. He remembers that during the war he was unable to dope himself with all manner of pills from the corner drug store and that he was not subjected to any flummery on the part of the Medical Officer. Thus he was healthy.
A Toronto officer visited the booklined studio of his former regimental Medical Officer. The usual jovial and profane greetings over, the officer launched into a harrowing description of his symptoms. The M.O. sounded him, pulled a long face.
“Better lay up for a few days –” he began.
“Mo, you old rascal,” yelled the officer, “do you remember that day on the Lievin front that I was sick and you wouldn’t send me out because the Colonel fancied he was short of officers? Do you remember, I really was ill? Well, to-day’s the anniversary of that day, you old scalawag, and I just thought I’d drop in and celebrate it. There isn’t a thing the matter with me!”
So the M.O. smothered his chagrin, shed his professional manner, and become once again the jovial, cynical, hard-headed and congenial old poker-player he always was.
Editor’s Note: Not taking illness seriously during World War One became a common joke for soldiers, as men were always needed. The “Number 9 Pill” was a laxative.