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Exhibit honors Northwestern doctors, nurses who treated World War II patients overseas

The exhibit opens Aug. 14 on Northwestern's Chicago campus
James A. Conner and colleagues at Fort Benjamin Harrison, 1942
James A. Conner and colleagues at Fort Benjamin Harrison, 1942

A free lunchtime public event will honor the World War II 12th General Hospital Unit, which was comprised of Northwestern University Medical School physicians and dentists, Chicago-area nurses, dieticians and physical therapists, and enlisted men who treated nearly 30,000 patients during the war.

The event, from noon to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, August 14, will launch a physical and digital exhibit featuring the 12th General Hospital Collection. The event will take place in Baldwin Auditorium, 303 E. Superior St., on Northwestern’s Chicago campus.  

The event is hosted by Northwestern’s Galter Health Sciences Library & Learning Center.

Dr. Sanders Marble, senior historian for the U.S. Army Office of Medical History, will speak about surgery and recovery during World War II.

The 12th General Hospital Unit was officially activated on January 28, 1942. Following nearly a year of military and medical training, the unit was deployed first to the Algerian seaside resort, Ain-el-Turck, and then to Naples, Rome and Leghorn in Italy until the unit was deactivated on September 15, 1945.

Along with performing emergency surgeries, the staff treated outbreaks of infectious diseases like typhus and malaria, and the high prevalence of venereal disease among American troops. Several members of the group were individually recognized for their service and the unit as a whole was awarded the Meritorious Plaque. 

Gabrielle Barr, a research associate at Galter, curated the exhibit. “What struck me most as I went through the papers was how deeply the medical personnel believed in their mission, how they overcame adversity, the tight-knit nature of their unit and the fond memories they had of their World War II service,” she said.

Both the digital exhibit and its companion traveling iteration, which are predominately drawn from the papers of Michael L. Mason and James A. Conner, highlight the recruitment, training and medical experiences of those in the 12th General Hospital. The exhibits also provide a window into the types of leisurely activities that bonded such a diverse group of people together and touch on how these servicemen and women, many of whom had never ventured far from their hometowns, explored their surroundings while abroad.   

Born in 1895, Mason attended undergrad, graduate and medical school at Northwestern. In World War I, he served as a sergeant, first class in charge of the operating theatre in France and tended to patients in Austria. Before assuming his role as the chief of surgical service for the 12th General Hospital division during World War II, Mason was an attending surgeon at Passavant Memorial Hospital, specializing in hand surgery, and an associate professor of surgery at Northwestern University Medical School. Mason passed away in 1963.

Conner, born in 1903, received his medical degree from Northwestern in 1933. Before being called to join the Armed Forces, Conner was a part of Northwestern’s pediatrics department and an instructor of contagious diseases. He was promoted to be part of the senior staff of Wesley Memorial Hospital in 1948, where he treated patients for many years. Conner passed away in 2001.