Professor R H Girdwood, Royal Army Medical Corps

My early years in the army were for the most part spent first in Yorkshire and then in Sussex, but in 1943, having applied for an overseas posting, I sailed from Greenock for an unknown destination, there being six of us, all medical officers, crammed into a two-berth cabin.

We survived two attempted bombing attacks at sea, the ship next to us sustaining a direct hit with 1115 casualties in the first attack, and after a short stay in a tent at Port Tewfik in Egypt, set off again, this time for Bombay. My posting now was to a tented hospital at Deolali beside the holy city of Nasik, the term ‘Deolali Tap’ being commonly used to describe a form of madness. This was where the British troops who were being repatriated were assembled, and nearby the 19th Indian Division which later relieved Mandalay from the Japanese was forming up. Needless to say we were all kept very fully occupied, although some of our wards collapsed when the monsoon came in July.

Other problems were mosquitoes, scorpions, kitehawks, vultures and howling jackals and it was always necessary to take precautions to avoid malaria, bacillary and amoebic dysentery, cholera, hepatitis, typhoid and poliomyelitis; snakes could be a danger. Monkeys sometimes entered railway carriages or huts and might snatch belongings. A group of men who had arrived from Bombay by train were marched a few miles to the camp and more than twenty had to be admitted with heat stroke or heat exhaustion. Two died despite all efforts to save them.

But now my activities unexpectedly became much altered as a result of the interest in haematology which I had developed as a house physician in Stanley Davidson’s ward. Although sternal puncture had been attempted in 1927 it was not until about the time of my graduation that this simple investigation of possible blood disorders came into common use, and, while in Stanley Davidson’s wards I performed many sternal punctures and reported on the marrows.

Sternal puncture

A medical Brigadier visiting Deolali learned that I had had this experience and had brought the needle with me, so immediately arranged for me to be posted and attached to G.H.Q. (Delhi) because there was considerable concern about an unknown disease which produced sever anaemia, diarrhoea, glossitis and wasting in Indian Troops, apparently mainly in East Bengal and Burma. Sometimes the condition was fatal. In 1943, one hundred and twenty men had been evacuated with medical of psychiatric conditions for every one suffering from bullet wounds or other surgical conditions. Mepacrine had helped to control malaria, but the form of anaemia which I was to investigate was not like that encountered in malaria and was not understood.

In Delhi I studied the records for a short while in a temporary headquarters building within sight of the Viceroy’s House, now the President’s Palace, which had been completed by Lutyens in 1930 on a site which he chose in 1912. I slept in a tent by the roadside where at times I could see the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, riding by. It was decided that I would be called a Nutrition Research Officer and I was given freedom to travel to any part of India where the disease was prevalent, arranging my own postings, always, of course, notifying G.H.Q. My equipment was modest, consisting of the sternal puncture needle, red and white cell pipettes and a Sahli haemoglobinometer. In this last a pipette is used to add a measured amount of blood to decinormal hydrochloric acid which is then diluted to match a standard.

I travelled widely in my quest, making 29 moves train or river steamer in ten months including reporting at intervals back to Delhi. In June 1945, however, the disease appeared again at Dhaka, in those days a town in India but now the chief city in Bangladesh … I was given a special ward to enable me to collect together during a period of six weeks a group of patients who I thought should be investigated because of their clinical features.

Marrow puncture was carried out in 96 of them and megalobastic anaemia was found in 62. This usually responded to crude liver injections, but such was not always the case. Certainly undiagnosed malaria was a complication in some instances, with the parasites frequently appearing in the peripheral blood when the liver injections were given, perhaps a form of “shock therapy”. It has to be realised too that some of the men may have been suffering from a degree of malnutrition though this was not an evident feature. In some cases the anaemia was very severe, necessitating blood transfusion to be carried out at once.

To Burma

After Dhaka I was told by G.H.Q. that I was to go to Burma to carry out further investigations along the lines that I had been doing, still seeking the condition which I believed to be sprue. I had become friendly with a nursing sister from Cornwall in the course of my visits to Sirajgunj and she was now working in an army hospital in Calcutta so, as I was passing through I sought her out and suggested that we might become engaged; I was delighted when she agreed and, having purchased a ring, I had to speed off, but less than two weeks later I was passing through Calcutta again, fortunately arriving on a Sunday morning so when I suggested we get married we dashed to the church and had the banns called. A dress was made the following day and on the Tuesday we were married, our guests being members of the hospital staff plus a few officers whom I knew and found in the dining room of the Grand Hotel where our reception was held. At that time because of instances of bigamy it was necessary to have a certificate from one’s C.O. confirming that one was not married already, but as I did not have a C.O. I signed it myself.

Officer in charge

I was now officer in charge of a medical division in Rangoon, but it was past the authorised time for my release. A new problem had arisen in that, although an officer was available to take over from me, the regulations said that an officer in South-East Asia Command (which I now was) could not go home through India command, which was where my wife was an Army nurse. I could not find anyone to sign an authority for me to go via India, so signed it myself and on the 8th February sailed for Calcutta … When I arrived in Calcutta I found that it was out of bounds to British troops in uniform because an anti-British ‘Quit India’ agitation had started and in addition there had developed strikes in the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy.

However a truckload of Gurkhas came past and cheerfully took me to my wife’s hospital at Alipore. Here we had no difficulty in negotiating her release and set off on the three day train journey westwards to Deolali. I was put in charge of a shuttered train which was going to Bombay, the fear being that it might be attacked, so apart from my wife and me all those aboard were armed. We sailed to Greenock where we were not allowed to disembark because it was thought that there was a case of smallpox on board. As I had advised, it was chickenpox!

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