The Harvard Surgical Unit


Sir William Osler by J. Russell & Sons, circa 1917

From the Collections of the Boston Medical Library

On June 7, 1915, towards the end of his sojourn at the American Ambulance Hospital, Elliott C. Cutler noted in his journal that

Coller and Wilson have applied for enlistment in the Osler unit of American surgeons to begin work in July. From Boston comes a portion of the unit headed by Drs. Nichols, Porter, Balch and many others of our best and most promising surgeons.  These men enlist for three months in the British army and receive rank and pay the same as British Army Medical staff.  They may be sent anywhere.  It is sure to be interesting and will bring the boys into new places and experiences.

This, the first contingent of the Harvard Surgical Unit, would come to be the Medical School's most enduring contribution to relief work during the war.

Encouraged by the model of the University Service at the American Ambulance Hospital in France, Sir William Osler met with the former U.S. Secretary of State and Ambassador to France, Robert Bacon, in January 1915, and the two proposed that American medical schools might also provide staff and equipment for British military hospitals.  Osler sent a letter to Harvard's president, A. Lawrence Lowell, in the spring, outlining the plan.  While the original idea called for a rotating staff provided by the medical schools at Harvard, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins, this proved in time to be unworkable, and Harvard continued to provide personnel for the Surgical Unit until the war's end.

The Harvard Surgical Unit