Impact of the War on the University and the Art College

The following was written by Gillian McDonald, a MSc Scottish Studies intern, who spent some time in early 2013 looking at selected items in the archives of the two institutions and analysing how World War 1 changed things on the ground.

Quadrangle of the University: Old College.

The First World War had an enormous impact on Scottish society as a whole, but it also had an important effect on specific institutions. The Minutes of the University Court provide an insight into how the war affected the University of Edinburgh, and similar official minutes and other records provide information about Edinburgh College of Art’s reaction to the Great War. During my eleven-week internship at the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh, I was able to study this material in detail and discover the many ways in which the war altered the normal running of both institutions.

Perhaps the most obvious impact the war had was on the decreasing number of staff and students able to attend the University. Within the first few months of war, the University Court Minutes had already reported on several cases of members of staff applying for leave of absence in order to take up military service. As the war continued, and conscription was eventually introduced, these numbers only increased further. It was not just military service, however, that prevented members of staff from undertaking their normal duties; some staff members took leave of absence in order to do other war-related jobs. For example, Mycology Lecturer Dr Malcolm Wilson became a Pathologist in the County of London War Hospital, and Mr H.W. Meikle, Lecturer on Scottish History, took on a post in the Intelligence Section of the Ministry of Munitions for the duration of the war.[1] The Minute Books from Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) show a similar story, with many members of staff applying for leave of absence whether to join the military services or to undertake other kinds of war work. This affected janitors, attendants and secretarial staff as well as teaching staff; in July 1916 Attendant Thomas Monteith applied for leave of absence to join His Majesty’s Navy, whereas his colleague Robert Sloane undertook work in a munitions factory during wartime.[2] In most cases, both at the University and at ECA, positions were kept open for the staff members’ return and the institutions paid the difference when military pay was less than their usual salaries. This proved to be a huge drain both on funds and resources, as not only did the University and ECA have to pay partial salaries of absent staff, but those who remained in employment had to undertake extra work to keep classes running. In some instances, it was simply not possible to continue with so many absent members of staff; in June 1916 it was decided that Elementary Greek, Elementary German, Political Economy, Arabic, History of Medicine and Physical Methods in the Treatment of Disease should be suspended during the 1916-17 term.[3]

The absence of a great number of students proved to be an arguably even bigger problem. In 1914, the majority of income for Scottish Universities was derived directly from student fees, but with the bulk of students being military-aged men this income ground to a halt during the war. As early as January 1915, the Courts of the four Scottish Universities had arranged to establish a Conference and prepare a joint memorial to be sent to the Treasury in order to obtain additional funding.[4] This funding was granted due to the ‘special circumstances’ of the war, and continued throughout the conflict. The huge scale of the First World War created the need, for the first time, for widespread state intervention in the running of Scottish Universities. These grants did not end as soon as peace was declared; in May 1919 the Treasury paid the University of Edinburgh an annual grant of £53,000, as well as a non-recurrent grant of £20,000 to help the University restore itself to a pre-war standard.[5] ECA also required financial help to cover the deficit created by a lack of fee-paying students; the Scotch Education Department granted a payment of £8,679 for the session 1914-15, and other similar payments were made throughout the war.[6] Another source of income was from the Carnegie Trust; the newly created Conference of the four main Scottish Universities met regularly throughout the First World War to discuss financial issues, and were able to secure special grants from the Carnegie Trust.[7]

With so many young men absent from the University, one group of students were actually able to improve their position during the war. Women were a very small minority of students in 1914, but by the end of the war their presence had become more widespread in Edinburgh University. Female students had not previously been admitted to the University of Edinburgh Medical School, instead studying at Surgeon’s Hall. With an increasing number of female medical students due to the special circumstances of wartime, Surgeon’s Hall was no longer able to provide satisfactory accommodation and resources and so suggested in June 1916 that women should be admitted to the University to study Medicine. Following many letters and petitions, the following month saw the University agreeing to ‘make provision within the University for the instruction of women in the Faculty of Medicine’.[8] Throughout the war, the Women Students’ Union campaigned for better facilities for female students, but it was not until February 1919 that the University agreed to let out a property in George Square solely for their use.[9]  The lack of available male staff also benefitted women as they were often appointed as substitute lecturers, assistants, demonstrators and examiners. The same could be seen at ECA; Dorothy Johnstone, for example, was appointed in place of Walter B. Hislop, an Assistant Teacher in the Drawing and Painting Section who served with the 5th Royal Scots during the war.[10] Perhaps due to the nature of courses on offer, female students already enjoyed a relatively prominent position at ECA so the war did not cause as major a change for them as it did for University students.

As well as the cancellation of some classes and extra provision for women in others, new classes were also introduced to help cater to the needs of a society at war. In June 1915 there were discussions to introduce a course in Military Science which would be open as a qualifying class to ‘all men who have served or are serving with His Majesty’s Forces’.[11] Following the introduction of conscription, however, the Lectureship on Military Subjects as suspended as there were no current or prospective students. Instead, more emphasis was put on ‘practical’ courses which would help keep the country running throughout the war, and aid in rebuilding it after peace was declared. In December 1917 developments began to improve the Forestry Department to cater for the extended teaching which was probable after the war. This began with the conversion of the Lectureship into a Chair, and then in May 1918 a special Diploma and Certificate in Forestry was established which would be open only to those who had served with His Majesty’s Forces during the war.[12] In May 1919 the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce gave the University £15,000 for the purpose of endowing a Lectureship in the subject of Industry and Commerce.[13] Some special courses were set up for demobilised men; schemes were introduced to provide education for invalided Colonial soldiers, and courses in Town Planning and Civic Design were to be provided to train discharged and disabled officers.[14] The Edinburgh Lipreading Association set up special classes at ECA for teaching lipreading to soldiers and sailors deafened in the war, and the men would also be able to attend Art classes whilst they were studying at the College. Convalescent Officers, who had some previous training in art, from Craiglockhart Hospital were also able to study at ECA without payment of fees.[15] It was common for both the University and ECA to admit those who had served in the war, as well as allied refugees, to classes free of charge or at a reduced rate. Some courses which had traditionally been a part of University teaching, however, declined in importance. Despite a Chair of German being established during the war there were strong objections to it due to popular anti-German sentiments, and steps were taken to ensure that no one was appointed to fill the position until after the war ended.[16]

As has been previously mentioned, the First World War saw increasing state intervention in Scottish Universities on a financial level, but during the war itself the state also had a physical presence within both the University of Edinburgh and ECA. The Local War Department took over the Edinburgh University Field Pavilion ‘for the purpose of billeting twenty-five men of the Army Service Corps’ in December 1916, and in February 1918 the Music Hall was commandeered by the Ministry of National Service.[17] The Board of Agriculture also made inquiries in January 1917 about taking over land belonging to the University in order to convert as much vacant land in the city as possible to allotments which were vital in the ‘present emergency’.[18] University premises were also used by other organisations and individuals for war-related activities; the Women Students Help Association used a room in the University as their Office and Committee Room to organise the provision of clothing and ‘articles of comfort’ for soldiers and sailors.[19] The government also had a noticeable presence at ECA during the war. The Food Control Department took over use of several classrooms in August 1917, and several other parts of the College were used by the Local Fuel and Lighting Department.[20] The Ministry for National Service also intended to take over a large portion of the building, but ECA was already overstretched and so it was decided to locate the offices for the Scottish Region Headquarters of the Ministry for National Service at the Royal (Dick) Veterinary School instead.[21]

As well as all these big changes, the war also had a significant impact on the day-to-day running of both institutions, causing many small disruptions and changes. Throughout the war, the University took out various types of Aircraft and Bombardment Insurance and Fire Insurance because of the potential threat of enemy attacks, and lighting regulations were also put in place. Perhaps now more associated with the Second World War, during the Great War “blackout” regulations were also strictly enforced by the City authorities and University buildings had to ‘avoid the display of unshaded lights after 7pm’. To comply with regulations, ECA had to obscure the glass roof of the Painters’ and Decorators’ classroom and the roof lights of the Design classrooms, as they were without blinds.[22] Due to the high cost of paper, the printing of the University of Edinburgh Library Catalogue was suspended until April 1919. Building repairs, the awarding of prizes and bursaries, and the appointing of new staff all had to be temporarily suspended during the war.[23] The already outdated Departments of Science and Medicine had suffered greatly from lack of repairs or upgrades during the war, and after peace was declared the huge influx of new students intensified this problem even further; the need for a ‘large building scheme … is now more than ever urgent’. This eventually led to the creation of the new King’s Buildings campus, the foundation stone of which was laid by the His Majesty on the 6th July 1920.[24] ECA also had to make cutbacks, with the Prospectus being revised in June 1916 to minimise printing and, after special Food Regulations were introduced, the Dining Hall staff had to ‘comply with the rules laid down for Restaurants’.[25]

University of Edinburgh War Memorial

As the war continued and many students and members of staff lost their lives, both the University and ECA had to consider the most appropriate way to remember those who had fought in the war. In December 1915 the University provided money towards a memorial service at St Giles Cathedral for students who had fallen in the war, but it was not until November 1917 that a Committee was appointed to create a Roll of Honour and collect memorial photographs. The Roll of Honour was published in the spring of 1920 and contained a Roll of the Fallen, with photographs, along with a record of war service and an introductory chapter on the war work of the University. A copy was given to a relative of each of the fallen, as well as to the various public institutions to which the University Calendar was also sent.[26] ECA began their preparations slightly earlier, with a Committee beginning to put together a Roll of Honour by April 1916. There were also discussions at this time about a suitable site and design for a memorial for the fallen to be erected after the war ended.[27] The ECA memorial took the form of a mural tablet which was unveiled on the 27th June 1922, and recorded the names of five members of staff and eighty-six students who lost their lives during the Great War.[28] The University’s memorial, costing approximately £2,000 and located on the west wall of the Old College Quadrangle, was designed by Sir Robert Lorimer and was unveiled on the 19th February 1923.[29]

The information in the minutes of the University Court and College Committee meetings suggests that the University of Edinburgh and ECA had, on the whole, largely similar experiences of war. There is a noticeable difference, however, in the way each institution discusses the war, especially in relation to the staff and students who left Edinburgh to join the military forces. The University Court Minutes remain very formal and there is little mention of where staff or students went or what happened to them. On the other hand, the Minutes of the ECA Committee and Board meetings, which are the records most directly comparable with the Court Minutes, include far more personal information about those who signed up. In most instances, when staff applied for leave of absence the Committee also recorded which battalion they joined, and sometimes where they were stationed or if they had been involved in any major battles. Perhaps because of ECA’s smaller size, it was much easier to “keep track” of those who had joined the forces. In addition to the official Minutes, there is also a Memorial Journal, put together by Miss Agnes L. Waterston, which records in detail information about staff and students involved in the war, along with press cuttings and photographs. Waterston was also Secretary and Treasurer of the War Comforts Fund which helped to organise many fundraising activities throughout the war, details of which are often recorded in the Minutes. These records, along with the ECA Letter Books, help to build up a much more personal view of the war in which ECA appears almost as a small, close-knit community rather than a formal institution. The University records, however, present a much more clinical picture where the focus is on the official running of the institution itself rather than the people who worked and studied there. It must be remembered, however, that the University Court is an organisation which is supposed to deal with mainly financial and administrative matters, but it is interesting to see a contrast between the minutes of the University and ECA nonetheless. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I was unable to study additional records from the University of Edinburgh – such as the Senatus Minutes – or determine whether any records similar to the ECA Memorial Journal exist; this is certainly an area of study which merits more attention.

[1] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 529, 19th July 1915’, University of Edinburgh Court Minutes, Volume XI, January 1912 – April 1916, p597; ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 546, 22nd January 1917’, University of Edinburgh Court Minutes, Volume XII, May 1916 – July 1920, p110

[2] ‘Meeting of the Board of Management, 6th July 1915’, Edinburgh College of Art, Minute Book, No.7, October 1914 to July 1915, p87

[3] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 539, 12th June 1916’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p21

[4] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 522, 18th January 1915’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XI, p503-4

[5] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 571, 12th May 1919’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p476-77

[6] ‘Meeting of the College Committee of the Board of Management, 1st February 1916’, Edinburgh College of Art, Minute Book, No. 8, October 1915 – July 1916, p35

[7] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 536, 13th March 1916’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XI, p682

[8] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 539, 12th June 1916’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p21-22’ ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 540, 10th July 1916’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p30

[9] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 568, 17th February 1919’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p434

[10] ‘Letter, 20th November 1914’, Edinburgh College of Art, Letter Book, No. 14, p184

[11] ‘Minutes of Meeting’ No 527, 14th June 1915’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XI, p569-70

[12] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 556, 17th December 1917’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p251; ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 561, 6th May 1918’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p310

[13] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 571, 12th May 1919’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p480-81

[14] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 565, 18th November 1918’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p383

[15] ‘Meeting of the Board of Management, 13th March 1917’, Edinburgh College of Art, Minute Book, No. 9, October 1916 – July 1918, p39; ‘Meeting of the Board of Management, 11th December 1917’ Edinburgh College of Art, Minute Book, No.9, October 1916 – July 1918, p15

[16] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 550, 14th May 1917’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p 153

[17] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 545, 18th December 1916’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p97; ‘Minutes of Meeting, No  558, 18th February 1918’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p267

[18] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 546, 22nd January 1917’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p111

[19] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 520, 16th November 1914’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XI, p487

[20] ‘Meeting of the Sub-Committee of the Board of Management, 14th August 1917’, ECA Minute Book, No.9, p4; ‘Meeting of the Board of Management, 5th November 1918’, Edinburgh College of Art, Minute Book, No.10 October 1918 – July 1920, p9-10

[21] ‘Meeting of the Board of Management, 5th March 1918’, ECA Minute Book, No.9, p27

[22] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 543, 23rd October 1916’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p60; ‘Meeting of the College Committee of the Board of Management, 1st December 1914’, Edinburgh College of Art, Minute Book, No.7, October 1914 – July 1915, p22

[23] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 567, 13th January 1919’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p402-3

[24] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 567, 13th January 1919’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p404; ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 585, 18th October 1920’, University of Edinburgh, Court Minutes, Volume XIII, October 1920 – July 1924, p1

[25] ‘Meeting of the College Committee of the Board of Management, 6th June 1916’, Edinburgh College of Art, Minute Book, No.8, October 1915 – July 1916, p70; ‘Meeting of the Board of Management, 8th May 1917’, ECA Minute Book, No.9, p53

[26] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 532, 13th December 1915’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XI, p637; ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 577, 19th January 1920’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XII, p623

[27] ‘Minutes of the College Committee of the Board of Management, 4th April 1916’, ECA Minute Book, No.8, p56

[28] ‘Note, March 1919’, Edinburgh College of Art, War Memorial Papers; ‘Note, February 1920’, ECA, War Memorial Papers; ‘Invitation, June 1922’, ECA, War Memorial Papers

[29] ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 605, 17th July 1922’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XIII, p302; ‘Minutes of Meeting, No 608, 18th December 1922’, UoE Court Minutes, Volume XIII, p331

Alexander Murray Drennan – pioneer of Eusol


Alexander Murray Drennan – or Murray to his friends – was born in Glasgow on 4th January 1884, and grew up in Helensburgh before coming to Edinburgh in 1901 to study medicine. Murray was a keen letter writer, and his letters to his sweetheart ‘Nan’ (Marion Galbraith, who would later become his wife) give an insight into the life of a young aspiring medical student:

Our first class begins at 8am so we have to be up betimes in the morning. From 8 to 10 I have anatomy and then at 11 I go over to the Infirmary; nominally we leave there at 1pm but on Operation days, twice a week at least, it is often 3 before I get away as I have the pleasure of being the instrument clerk and as such have to see after the instruments.

– GD9/45

It wasn’t all hard work, though. Murray’s letters to Nan and his family recount evenings spent at enjoying Edinburgh’s cultural offerings (“I went to see Faust on Monday night. It is rather a ‘creepy’ sort of opera but the music is very fine”); attending dinners (“at night there was a complimentary dinner given to Professor Beattie in the Caledonian Hotel … Beattie was very popular when he was here and no wonder for he was an exceptionally nice man and knew his work thoroughly”) and afternoons spent playing tennis and golf with fellow students as well as professors (“Professor Schӓfer had the goodness to ask me down to North Berwick to golf with him … a most enjoyable day’s golf in the most delightful weather. We went back to the house and had tea and then I had just time to get the 6.43 train back”).

Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh Residents, Summer 1907. Drennan is seated front row, far right.

After graduating MB ChB in 1906, Murray took up a practical apprenticeship as a Resident of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. In between visiting patients and supervising the various nurses, clerks, dressers and medical students who attended the wards, the Residents made time to enjoy themselves (you can find out more about their antics over on the LHSA blog). In one letter to Nan, Murray related a night out for the ‘Mess’:

RIE Residents on a bus, ready for an outing.

Friday … evening at 9pm, the Mess having chartered a visitor bus (& driver) set out for Peebles. It created quite a sensation when at the appointed time one of these large buses labelled “Jeffery’s Lager” rolled up to the door & we all embarked. The inside was converted into smoking room, saloon bar, while the upper deck was occupied by the sightseers. It was very funny going out Dalkeith Rd, several people tried to get on board thinking it was a public conveyance, needless to say their attempts to mount our machine were not encouraged by word or deed. The run out was delightful as it was a clear warm evening & the road lies through pretty country. We got to Peebles shortly after 11pm & found supper all ready for us at the ‘Cross Keys’ inn. As usual the Mess meeting was constituted & we did full justice to the repast, reembarking again about 12.40am.”

– GD9/46

Following his residency Murray stayed close to home, working in the by-now familiar Pathology Department of the University of Edinburgh. When war broke out in 1914, he signed up as an official Pathologist with the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C), and in 1915 he had to postpone an imminent appointment as the first full-time Professor of Pathology at the University of Otago in New Zealand and instead make his way to the R.A.M.C. Depot in Aldershot. In a letter home dated October 1915, he describes some of the men he will serving with and the set-up of their team:

The staff seem all very decent men, one or two are well over forty & must have been in practice. There are several Edinburgh graduates amongst them … on the whole I think we should work well together … There are two or three surgical specialists, one medical specialist, several radiologists, several anaesthetists and one bacteriologist … there is a little man Brown who has done a little in that way & I shall try & get him on to help, but he does not profess much technical knowledge!


In early November 1915 Murray’s unit was deployed to Mudros, on the island of Greece. He would later describe how this previously “bare, stony island” was overtaken by military personnel:

As the occupation spread the whole of the harbour side of the island was dotted with tents from Mudros East to Condia on the west. It was a shifting population, today 10000, next week perhaps 60000. The only permanent fixtures, so to speak, being the various H.Q.s, the Base depots and the Hospitals.

To the north a little outside Mudros East were several stationary hospitals situated on a sun-baked flat, and there they bore the burden of the day; blinded with dust and flies and crowded up with cases of dysentery, the staff often sick, they cheerily toiled along. In the neighbourhood also were numerous camps of combatant units; and one bright spot, facetiously known as the “dogs’ home”, where extra medical officers were kept on the chain and supplied as required to the Peninsula or to units on the island.

– GD9/38

Murray’s letters home to Nan and their children from this time paint rather a relaxed picture of life in war time. Reading them, one is left with the impression that he only wanted to recount activities that his wife would be familiar with, rather than the full realities of a life in an overseas field hospital. One letter, for example, describes how they spend their evenings: “After dinner we had our usual games at whist. It is quite an institution and we have played every evening after dinner, always Richards and Thuilliers against the Colonel and me, and so far the games have been very even”. In another letter, Murray talks of attending a garden party: “it was just quiet tea in the Fergusons’ little garden, a shady spot with palms, & bougainvillea, & such things growing about. … We had tea & chatted & then left in small batches”.

Alexander Murray Drennan in Cairo, 1915

By 1915 some of Murray correspondents had already been stationed abroad for some time, and his incoming letters give insights into some very different military experiences. Murray’s younger brother James Stewart Drennan (who had joined the Royal Horse and Field Artillery in 1912) described life in Salonika and a close encounter with a German zeppelin:

It has been beastly hot here again the last few days and we have now chucked working in the middle of the day, instead we lie on our beds in a more or less nude condition and curse the flies, luckily it is still nice and cool at night.

Salonica [sic] had another visit from a Zepp. three or four days ago, just before daylight. All the guns and searchlights in the place got on to it at once and it was brought down before it had a chance of dropping any bombs. It came down in the marshes at the mouth of the Vardar River and the men were captured, so were felt rather bucked at having bagged a Zepp in this corner of the world.

– GD9/10

A letter from Tom Graham Brown, physiologist and mountaineer, gives an insight into the life of medical personnel at home:

Write me a decent letter and tell me all your news. I wish I was out there with you. I am at present fixed in this hospital which is one for shock cases – mostly men who are pretty badly shaken or bad mentally after bombardments. Very many of them get well – tho’ we get a good many early G.P.I’s before they are diagnosed.

I wish all the same that I could get out. It isn’t any catch being in this country. However I must trust to luck.

– GD9/4

Yet another perspective was provided by Dr John Fraser (later Prof. Sir John Fraser, Principal of University of Edinburgh). Dr Fraser was stationed in Northern France, and his letters describe the long, difficult days the staff there endured:

Lately we have been deluged with work: you can probably imagine what Monday was like. I was in the theatre from 10am to 12 midnight, and in that time there were 6 craniotomies: an amputation and 2 gas gangrene: in addition to others. One doesn’t feel much inclined for reading or writing after such days.

– GD9/100

There were benefits to working in such tough conditions, however. War often brings about significant advances in technology and medicine: as well as the greater incentive to improve the health of fighting forces, the need to take risks and experiment can also increase.

Many of the battles of WW1 took place on muddy farmland, and it could sometimes be days before a soldier was transported to a clearing hospital for comprehensive treatment. This meant the risk of already-traumatic wounds becoming infected was high, with gangrene claiming many lives.

For some time prior to his deployment Murray had been working with colleagues in the Pathology Department at the University of Edinburgh “to find an antiseptic which could be applied as a first dressing in the field to prevent sepsis”[1], and in 1915 they published a paper in the British Medical Journal on their experiments with ‘Eusol’, or Edinburgh University Solution of Lime. This was a combination of bleaching powder and boric acid, and early experiments both in the wards and in the field showed great success at reducing infection and speeding up healing.

In gathering accounts of these experiments, Murray relied on other colleagues who were using the Eusol treatment. This letter from Dr Fraser sets out the dilemma faced by many front-line surgeons, and his experience using Eusol:

Since I last wrote you I have had a run of gas gangrene cases, all of them I have treated with Eusol and in each case I have been thoroughly satisfied with the result. With one case I was exceedingly impressed. Lt. Col. —- had been infected 5 days before admission to the Hospital – on admission there was most gangrene to the lower of the knee: from this knee to the groin there was the gas infection of the tissues which precedes the tissue necrosis. One was faced with three possibilities – 1. Leaving him alone to die 2. Doing a flapless amputation at the hip joint: a mutilating operation from which few recover 3. Amputation through the centre of the thigh, in other words, through the centre of the gas infected area, and risking it.

I chose the last: I did the operation under Special Anaesthesia and as I was doing the operation I remarked that it ought to satisfy the criteria as regards the use of Eusol. I amputated through the thigh and not only so but I made flaps and partly closed the wound, a thing one had never dared to attempt previously… The result was a complete success: no trace of gangrene appeared subsequently.


A further hurdle to be overcome in wartime was the difficulty in communicating such advances. Recognising the delays to the mail that could occur, Murray devised a system for himself and Nan:

I sent off my last to you on Sunday afternoon, & I labelled it no.1 as I explained so that you would know by the number if a letter was missing, of course I have sent several to you before I began the numbering. This is a recapitulation in case you didn’t get my last letter.


Murray also kept a small diary in which he recorded letters sent and received – an absolute dream for archivists and researchers!

There are roughly 6 archive boxes of letters like this – thankfully Drennan had a system by which to organise them!

No such system was in place for the medical men, however, and correspondence over a number of weeks between Murray, J. Lorrain Smith and Fraser details the somewhat arduous process of getting an article published.

I am sorry to have been so lazy in getting this note away, but during the last week the pace of work has increased and although [things are quieter] at present, if I do not get these away now it may be a long while before I have another opportunity.

– Fraser to Drennan, 17 Sep 1915

For the past fortnight I have been cut off from all correspondence and your letter and the manuscript were awaiting me here on my return. I have handed the manuscript to the Colonel and he has approved of it: he forwards it to the DMS [Director of Medical Services] and who if he approves will forward to the War Office: the WO will notify the BMJ or Dr Fletcher to proceed with the publication. The ways of the army are wonderful but there they are!

– Fraser to Drennan, 5 Dec 1915

By 1916 Eusol was an established means for treating septic wounds, and even today[1] hypochlorus acid forms a backbone to attempts to accelerate wound healing.

After being discharged from service in 1916, Murray was finally able to take up his place in New Zealand, with his wife and children joining him shortly after. They remained there until 1929 when Professor Drennan took up the Chair of Pathology at Queen’s University in Belfast, and in 1932 he returned to his alma mater to take up the Chair at the University of Edinburgh, where he remained until his retirement in 1954. Professor Drennan died in 1984, a few weeks after his 100th birthday.

Alexander Murray Drennan and family on a picnic in Dunedin, New Zealand.



[1] 2 Smith JL, Drennan AM, Rettie T, Campbell W. Experimental observations on the antiseptic action of hypochlorous acid and its application to wound treatment. BMJ 1915;ii: 129-36.

The Perils of Technology: Aviation During the First World War


The First World War was the first in which air warfare played a significant part. While aircraft were ultimately to change the face of warfare, the demands of the war provided a rapid boost to this very new technology.

At the outbreak of the war effective powered flight was a technology not much more than ten years old, but each of the participating countries already had an armed air service of some sort. The allies had 208 aeroplanes between them, and Germany 180.  There were also airships, which initially seemed better-tried and more practical, although their importance diminished as the war progressed.  The British aircraft were split between the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), under the command of the army, and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), under the command of the Navy.  These were merged to form the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1918.

The types of aircraft in use were very varied, because each country had several of their own manufacturers and models of aircraft, and almost any machine which was available might be pressed into service. Aircraft models evolved rapidly, as technology was improved, and the needs of the war changed.

Initially, aeroplanes were regarded as primarily useful for reconaissance, and stable two-seaters, such as the British B.E.2, were preferred.  These were not very manoeuvreable and were poor at defending themselves or evading enemy anti-aircraft guns, which led to the development of fast, single-seater fighters, such as the French S.P.A.D.

The Germans made parallel developments; their early reconnaisance aircraft including monoplanes with distinctive swept-back, birdlike wings, such as the Rumpler Taube.  By the end of the war bigger, heavier aircraft designed for bombing had been developed.

From the beginning of the war both allied and German air forces had to establish, for the first time, how to make their aircraft recognisable, both to other airmen and to those on the ground. National markings were rapidly adopted, and by the beginning of 1915 both French and British authorities had produced posters showing silhouettes of enemy aircraft, entitled ‘Fire on these’.

In late 1914 or early 1915 the French produced the very first book of aircraft silhouettes for recognition purposes, Silhouettes D’Avions, Diagrams of Aeroplanes. These were produced with text in French and English and distributed to both troops and airmen.  An alternative version was produced on cards, for better durability.  Updated editions and supplements were issued to reflect new developments.  We hold two versions of this in our collections – the very first edition, showing French, British and German aircraft of late 1914, and a supplement of French aircraft from September 1915


Examination of the two shows just why these publications were of limited success in preventing both ground troops and airmen from attacking the wrong aircraft. The pictures are not very high quality, and do not show up the main features of the individual aircraft particularly clearly, especially to an untrained eye.   Take the picture of the B.E.2 – it is quite difficult to make out that it is trying to indicate that the upper wings are longer than the lower ones.

The illustrations for the two editions are printed from different artwork, which shows up ambiguities in the lines.  The Parasol Morane is included in both.  In one illustration there are lines which might be either substantial structural struts, or nearly invisible cable, but all of which are omitted from the other picture entirely.

The S.P.A.D. was a very common aeroplane type, but it takes some effort to work out from its picture that the propeller was located in the middle of its fuselage.

There is even one illustration we have not been able to identify, the Avion de Chasse Morane, which does not seem to entirely correspond to any aircraft made by the Morane company and which was used during the war, that we can find a modern record of!

These manuals were all produced in a hurry; they illustrate only a selection of models, and do not show variants or all the latest developments of equipment. Even more confusing, not to say downright unhelpful, is the earlier edition, which summarises all the other British models of aircraft as being similar to the ones illustrated.

Towards the end of the First World War the problems of distinguishing aircraft, while not solved, were somewhat reduced. In 1917 the RFC ordered 1000 Bristol Fighter aircraft, so that although there were still many different models of aeroplane in the skies, there began to be some standardisation.  More successfully, in early 1918 the French set up a ‘Flying circus’ which toured examples of the different models of their aircraft around the British airfields.  This had the happy result of not only familiarising the RFC with the appearance of the different models, but the opportunity to compare performance and develop some camerarderie with the French aviators.

Despite the shortcomings of these identification manuals, this approach continues to be used today, better pictures and combining it with other methods of teaching improving its effectiveness, although today it is more likely to be used by enthusiasts for civilian aircraft, and combined with a mobile phone app for detecting and tracking aircraft.