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Life during Wartime

Trains, rockets, maggots that heal and blushes. Catherine Blackledge relives war year memories with 1940s graduates

Glennis 'Bunty' Leatherdale, 82, remembers rockets and flying bombs. On one journey by train to her physiotherapy training at Guy's Hospital, London Bridge during the Second World War, a rocket landed a little ahead of the train by the track. 'The train was perched perilously on the bank and we were not allowed to vacate it. Houses had been hit and the heartrending vision of people being rescued from the debris, some alive, others dead, will stay with me forever,' she says. 'We were at last allowed to leave the train and walked the remainder of the journey to London Bridge, along the track.'

Glenys Harris (née Wallwork), 82, trained at Guy's hospital from 1941 to 1945. Bombs and trains are also part of her recollections. 'We were living in private billets and quite frequently there would be air raids during the night with flying bombs and incendiaries. Our landladies were keen for us to go downstairs and sit under the dining room table or under the stairs.

'We used to travel up to Guy's for some of our lectures by train and if there was an air raid on our journey, the train would be stopped; I could never quite understand the reason. Of course we were young... and I don't think we realised the dangerous times we were living through.' Fellow student Brenda Winterbotham, 80, began her training in March 1944. She recalls; 'The war was becoming very busy in the air... D-Day was very exciting - but this was followed within a week by increasing numbers of flying bombs, one of which damaged Everden where we attended lectures. The staff lived there.'

Student physiotherapists at Guy's, or masseurs as they were then known, worked at Orpington Hospital, Kent treating many servicemen, 'some with very bad injuries,' comments Glenys Harris. 'One of my most vivid memories is that of the smells coming from the wounds under the plaster casts.' Shirley Massey is another former Guy's student. She recalls that 'at first injuries from the forces were caused by football and motorcycle accidents. Later we had war casualties to treat, fractures and wounds of the leg, nerve injuries. Many came straight from the front, some had been in salt water, which helped heal and clean their wounds.

'There were many deep and dirty wounds and these we treated very successfully with UVL [ultraviolet light]: the surrounding area was covered by cutting lint to shape and giving a third degree dose. When healing started some areas were given a lesser dose and a caustic stick was used where over-granulating had taken place.' Nerve injuries, says Shirley, were treated with the medical electricity modalities 'faradism and galvanism'. 'We needed to have a good knowledge of the nerve roots and points of stimulation,' she notes. She didn't enjoy the training in medical electricity techniques. 'The shortwave machine had to be in a wire cage, Galvanism had to be done with great care because of causing a burn, Faradism you had to test on yourself and it wasn't comfortable!'

In the 1940s, massage was enjoying a resurgence, thanks, in part, to the publication in 1941 of Dr James Cyriax's Massage, Manipulation and Local Anaesthesia. Shirley recounts that after plaster of Paris or pop casts had been removed 'we gave massage with soap and water to reduce the oedema, and then with oil to revive the skin, prior to exercises.... Where backs and bottoms were involved, because of our age and that of the Tommie's, it was difficult not to blush,' she adds. 'Physiotherapy really came into its own in the 1940s because of the war. Men coming back from the war needed rehab. They really couldn't do without us.' As she recalls, both the words physiotherapy and rehabilitation were new in the 1940s. 'We had to explain what it meant: physiotherapy and rehabilitation.'

Records from 1942 show the Society was deliberating whether to call itself The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy or The Chartered Society of Rehabilitation (deciding that year on the former). As its publication, the Journal of the Chartered Society of Massage and Medical Gymnastics stated: 'What shall it be? - physiotherapist or rehabilitant?,' while noting that either name would give a better title than masseur or masseuse.

In the summer of 1940 the Ministry of Health began to set up physiotherapy and rehabilitation services for all Emergency Medical Services (EMS) hospitals of 300 or more beds, and the first spinal unit was opened in 1944 at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. The war years also saw the introduction of mobile physiotherapy units as demand for community services increased due to the numbers of war-injured in hospitals. Rehabilitation in the 1940s typically included massage, graduated exercise, weight and pulley exercises and remedial exercises, galvanic stimulation to re-educate muscles, short wave diathermy and wax baths. 'Wax', comments Shirley, 'was excellent for pain and to reduce swelling... there was a large tall wax bath, we used wax a lot for feet, knees and hands.'

Shirley began her training in 1942 at the age of 17. Like many other physios, the war meant she was allowed to begin training at a younger age, and the length of training was reduced from three years to two and a half. At Guy's Hospital, she says 'we treated a variety of patients, many outpatients in the large gym, wonderful people from the Borough who brought us oranges from the market. Quite a few were children who always came with a message from Mum, "Can I keep my vest on!" Other patients were loath to remove their socks.' In the wards, she says, 'we treated a variety of medical and surgical conditions. Because the mastectomy operation left such a long scar, we had a job to mobilise the shoulder joint. The lobectomy operations, one of which I was able to see, were also radical with huge scars.'

She remembers in detail various visits and lectures from her training days including visits 'to Carshalton to see the treatment of children with tuberculosis and polio', talks about the treatment of skin grafts and burns, as well as a demonstration by Mrs Olive Guthrie Smith of 'slings and pulleys on her new apparatus'. This was the beam, pulley and sling apparatus designed by Mrs Guthrie Smith during the first world war to give active or passive exercise (see opposite).

Post-qualification, says Margaret Measures (née Baker), 86, 'you could either volunteer to serve at home in an army hospital or volunteer to go overseas.' Margaret chose the latter, and was posted abroad with the Massage Corps just before the end of the war in 1945. The Massage Corps was formed in 1936 to serve in the armed services, and became the Physiotherapy Service in 1943. By 1942, 6,000 members were serving in EMS hospitals in Europe, Africa, India, Palestine and Egypt.

Margaret's destination was India. 'We were told we were going to India, and leaving tomorrow night... I was delighted, the thought of going to India was wonderful, a great opportunity,' she says. She worked at a large field hospital in Poona, southern India, which was so big 'we had to have a bicycle to get round it'. Among her patients, she notes, were 'the only three officers who'd survived amputation in Japanese hands'. She loved her life there, she says, travelling all over southern India by train, and marrying there in 1947.

Pauline Walker, 83, also joined the Massage Corps post-qualification. She, however, stayed in the UK because of her age. 'A lot of us wanted to go abroad... we wanted to be in uniform' she says. 'But we were not allowed to go until we were 25.' Although all Massage Corps members did wear uniform, only members serving with the army were allowed to wear the Royal Army Medical Corps badge, a 'Monty' beret and shoulder flashes.

Staying in England, Pauline, who is now a CSP fellow, worked at an EMS hospital in Arlesey, Bedfordshire treating German and Italian prisoners of war, as well as service men and local patients. She remembers the trains arriving in the middle of the night carrying the prisoners of war. At this time, penicillin had just become available, and was seen as 'terribly precious', says Pauline. 'We were made to get up in the middle of the night [to meet the prisoners of war]... and the physiotherapists were asked to carry the penicillin'.

Mavis Crouch, 86, did go abroad, working from 1942 to 1946 in Nigeria and then at Shropshire Orthopaedic Hospital treating members of the 51st Highland Division from North Africa. This, she says, was 'very interesting work'. A particularly striking memory for her involves the now-acknowledged therapeutic power of maggots. 'Most fractures from the North African front were enclosed in pop which, when removed after six weeks or so, were seething with maggots, but healed!' From a physiotherapy perspective, Shirley Massey can perhaps sum up the war years. As she says: 'Everybody really worked very hard... It really was very exciting... we had such a superb time and I think physiotherapy, a different sort of physiotherapy, rehabilitation, really came into its own.' From the ashes of war, the beginnings of physiotherapy as we know it today began.

Further information

  • Glennis 'Bunty' Leatherdale's wartime memoirs can be viewed on the BBC website:
  • The historical archive of the Guy's Hospital Physiotherapy Association (GHPA) is at the London records office. Pictures will be available online soon. For more details contact GHPA honorary secretary Sue Parroy
  • Barclay J [1994]. In good hands: The history of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy 1894-1994. Butterworth Heinemann.
  • Wicksteed J [1948]. The growth of a profession: being the history of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy 1894-1945. Edward Arnold & Co[1994] 'The Chartered Society of Massage and Medical Gymnastics 1920 to 1943 - the consolidating years', Physiotherapy, 80(A), 14A-15A
  • [1994] 'Women (and men) at war', Physiotherapy, 80(A), 37A-39A

Age is no barrier

Frontline would like to thank all the physiotherapists who responded to the request on iCSP for physios who trained and practiced in the 1940s and 1950s to get in touch. The response was overwhelming, and unfortunately we could not speak to everybody or include all responses. Future articles will look at physiotherapy in the fifties.


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