- The American Hospital of Paris during the First World War
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When the war broke out in August 1914, Americans in France and at home joined efforts to restructure, equip and staff a 600-bed military hospital in the Lycée Pasteur building in Neuilly-sur-Seine, under management of the nearby American Hospital of Paris. Volunteers from the expatriate community and from the United States stepped forward to serve as doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers, funded through an unprecedented wave of giving. From [End Page 95] Gilded-Age millionaires to the Boys Scouts of San Antonio, Americans wanted to help France in its time of need. The American Hospital became the epicenter of these volunteer efforts, organizing the first motor-ambulance squad, setting up field hospitals and convalescent centers, and bringing modern medicine to treat terrible war wounds.
Young men from 48 American universities came to France to drive ambulances, a dangerous but desperately needed task that by the end of the war had seen some 400,000 wounded soldiers transported to care. At the beginning of the war, the wounded often were left lying in village schools and churches for days waiting for transport. And this war, with its new heavy artillery and trench positions, resulted in devastating facial injuries, pushing doctors to quickly improve maxillofacial reconstruction techniques. Filthy trench conditions also led to immediate infection of any wound, no matter how small, until an innovative antiseptic solution matched with an irrigation method began to save limbs as well as lives. At the start of the war, amputation was the only answer to infection. Medical advances such as these came from European and American doctors working together: at a February 1915 conference at the American Hospital, French physician Dr. Alexis Carrel gave a talk entitled "Science has perfected the art of killing. Why not that of saving?"
The American volunteers serving in France returned home to tell audiences about their work, and about the sacrifices and need in France. They were speaking to a nation of 92 million, divided over the question of maintaining neutrality in the war, and their stories helped push public opinion toward joining the Allies. The American Hospital also commissioned a film about the volunteers, Our American Boys in the European War, shown around the country in 1917. By the time the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany, 75 bustling aid organizations estimated they had sent material worth $300 million–some $700 million today–to France and Belgium. The resounding echo of the Americans' deep generosity was felt not only during the First World War, but for long afterward.
With the U.S. entry into the war, the military wing of the American Hospital was taken over by the U.S. Army as Field Hospital No. 1. It was further expanded and utilized as part of a network of military hospitals set up around France during the war. In 1919, it [End Page 96] returned to being the Lycée Pasteur, opened as a school, and continues to provide education today. The American Hospital, in the meantime, was recognized by the French government in 1918 as being of "Public Utility", and continues to provide cutting-edge medical care today. [End Page 97]
Ellen Hampton, Ph.D., is a historian, author and lecturer at the Sciences Po Euro-American Campus in Reims.