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07 February 2004

From February 1942 to 1945 I was a student nurse in training at the Withington Hospital, Manchester.

In 1943 and 1944 there were less civilian patients and a large number of soldiers. A notable difference in the way that civilians and soldiers were treated was demonstrated in the use of penicillin. Penicillin was only available for soldiers. I nursed a senior student nurse who was severely ill with meningitis, pneumonia and septicaemia. She was not allowed to receive penicillin. She died aged 21 years old.

Penicillin came in a thick oil mixture. It was very difficult to draw up into the needle. It was administered intramuscularly and was quite painful for the patient to receive.

One large block of wards in the grounds of the hospital was allocated for young female patients with active tuberculosis. Some patients were strapped on to frames which later affected their hip alignment. It was essential to have open windows so it was difficult to maintain blackout. There were no rubber hot water bottles, only stone ones, which had to be replenished during the night. This meant a lot of up and down stairs activity for the only two night nurses.

Relatives brought in food which had to be warmed up for breakfast. There was a great use of dried eggs in all wards and staff dining rooms.

In early 1945 the day nurses were on a rota to collect patients from the 9.17pm train at the Exchange Station, Manchester. There was a very long platform to accommodate the train which had brought stretchered and walking wounded from France. These soldiers had been through clearing stations in the south of England. Eventually their condition was assessed and they were discharged home. Wards continued to be made available for soldiers and the admission of civilian patients was restricted.

One night there were 36 German soldiers on the train and they were admitted to the hospital. Herbert Bach, who was the Austrian Resident Medical Officer, started the ward round with me. When we reached the third patient on the left, he opened the Daily Sketch that he was carrying and showed the picture of the sinking of the "Scharnhorst". The German soldiers didn't believe that the ship had sunk. They shouted "propaganda".

I had many great experiences during this period, even though the work was very hard.

The best memory was seeing many planes with yellow stripes taking off from Ringway aerodrome joining with others for D-Day.

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Message 1 - Wartime nursing and penicillin

Posted on: 07 February 2004 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Thanks for an excellent story on one of my favourite subjects.
This site is providing an excellent description of the changes in medicine in Britain just prior to the NHS.
You provided the first description I've seen of early penicillin. I didn't know enemy medics did ward rounds. I also didn't know relatives brought in food.

My father Reg Gill worked as an RAMC radiographer on Malta and believes penicillin played a suprising part in the surrender of the Italian fleet. links

A few questions.
Were there separate wards for enemy nationallities? My father said Malta hospitals had problems with intense hostillity between the nine Yugoslave nationalities. Fractured femur or not, they were still a threat to each other!
Reg also said that hospitals treated all wounded the same irrespective of nationailty. Do you think that particular ethical standard was the same in all hospitals?

A number of people have said they were the first to receive penicillin. I assume a batch was sent to a group of hospitals at the same time. Do you know what training was given to determine which patients would benefit from its use? I assume their contribution to the future war effort was also important.

If you write any more stories I'd really like to read them.



Message 2 - Wartime nursing and penicillin

Posted on: 07 February 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

I too enjoyed this story, it is very informative.

However, towards the end, you say:

"in early 1945 ... he opened the Daily Sketch that he was carrying and showed the picture of the sinking of the "Scharnhorst". The German soldiers didn't believe that the ship had sunk. They shouted "propaganda".

This cannot be right, the Scharnhorst was sunk on 26 December 1943 in the battle of the North Cape.

Do you by any chance mean the Tirpitz, finally sunk on 12 November 1944?

Kind regards,



Message 3 - Wartime nursing and penicillin

Posted on: 07 February 2004 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Just for the record, could it also have been Admiral Scheer sunk 10th April 1945? Unlike Scharnhorst, there were photographs available of the destruction of both Tirpitz and Scheer.

Whatever the ship, it shows the German patients were conscious of the risk of hostile propaganda.


Message 4 - Wartime nursing and penicillin

Posted on: 07 February 2004 by greenhill2

Here is another account of what German POWs were like in Military Hospital at the outbreak of theWar.Please read my artick(para 2) ref A1975872 regarding two I knew of!!


Message 5 - Wartime nursing and penicillin

Posted on: 06 October 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Paul -
It is fairly obvious that you have never had the mis fortune to heve been hospitalised with a fever - of any sort.
Around 1936 I was hospitalised in Dundee with an acute case of Scarlet Fever, which in those days was very serious. My parents had to stand on a three step ladder outside of the window near my bed as it was not allowed to have contact with anyone.
They also brought in food to last until the next visit, including Danish Butter which was all we would eat... unfortunately this Butter was never served to me but must have done the nurses some good.Finally arriving home some weeks later I was asked what I would like to eat." A slice of bread and butter" my first bite - I threw up as I couldn't handle the taste of Butter having been served margarine for weeks - I could'nt eat Butter or margarine for years afterwards !
A year later my younger brother was admitted with Cerebral Spinal Meningitis... and was cured with the application of what was thought to be the first treatment of penicillin.To-day that cure is commonplace but back in the late thirties - it was a killer !


Message 6 - Wartime nursing and penicillin

Posted on: 14 November 2005 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Tom, you are quite right in saying I've never had a serious illness. My father's impeccable timing ensured the NHS and I both materialised in July 1948 -to his great financial relief!

The site documents the period when free treatment became available to most groups though, if some of the stories are correct, the quality of some of the institutions seems abysmal and ethical standards were set locally.

Like Peter, my father was born in Leeds and also had the dubious pleasure of a stay at Seacroft fever hospital with scarlet fever. However he was too young to remember much about it.

From your description, I think pre-antibiotic, pre-NHS would be most people's of hell. My aunt described how newspapers printed names and instructions, e.g. "bring clothes" I believe was good news whilst "immediate visit required" meant it was too late!

I sometimes wonder whether there would have been the resources for trating everyone if penicillin hadn't made many treatments relatively cheap.

Thanks once again,



Message 7 - Wartime nursing and penicillin

Posted on: 14 November 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Paul -
you may be right as to the adverts in the local newpapers for relatives attendance - the one you had to watch however was the one asking for immediate attendance - and call in at the local church first !
obviously the problems with the Nhs began with your arrival in the july of '48 as within a few months the funds were bankrupt - as everyone wanted dentures and glasses plus planeloads of Maltese; Cypriots and Irish arriving for free maternity !


Message 8 - Wartime nursing and penicillin

Posted on: 19 November 2005 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

I'm sure you're right and "immediate attendance" was the dreaded wording.
I now realise I myself was an unexpected and possibly not entirely welcome early NHS expense ..together with my twin sister. Enough said!

What an awful shock the papers could bring in the first half of the last century. I suppose everyone had had too much experience of bereavement.

I remember my astonishment when my father explained that the radio SOS messages for someone who was "dangerously ill" invariably meant that they had already died.


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