Shaftesbury’s medical history
Michael Handy looks at some of the pioneering work done at Shaftesbury Military Hospital during World War 2
Published in June ’11
Once a borstal, then a Young Offenders Institution and now a category C prison, Guys Marsh was, just under seventy years ago, a place of world-leading medical innovation. It was where the first non-trial use of penicillin in the UK took place, and was amongst the first places to use the new ‘wonder drug’ Streptomycin, which was given to returning soldiers with TB who had been POWs in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Above all else, though, it is where a brilliant, but somewhat unorthodox, orthopaedic surgeon called John Charnley carried out some astonishing work on soldiers who had been severely injured in action. As senior orthopaedic surgeon for the whole of what was know as the Salisbury Plain area, Charnley had access to plenty of cases for treatment, but one of his great success stories was a young sapper called Brian Guy, on whose recollections we will concentrate here.
In 1944, Brian Guy left a reserved occupation as an engineer and joined the Royal Engineers assault company attached to the 3rd Infantry Division – known as Monty’s Ironsides. He came ashore at Sword beach, beat the paratroopers to Pegasus bridge and was involved in all the major campaigns across France, Belgium and Holland. He was wounded by an S-mine, which killed a good friend who was standing in front of him and which left a bit of ball bearing in his head, but was ‘patched up’ and sent back into the line. At one stage, the sappers were charged with trying to defuse or destroy 250,000 mines.
On arriving at Nijmegen bridge, during Operation Market Garden, he volunteered as a dispatch rider. On one ride, he was travelling along a road when he was blown off his motorbike, which continued onwards down the road on its own for some distance. A passing lorry stopped shortly afterwards and, as Brian remembers: ‘Someone put a lit cigarette in my mouth and an officer said, “This is going to hurt” as he unwrapped my intertwined legs. I bit so hard on the cigarette that the hot end fell down my shirt, which added to my woes.’
His injuries were horrific; practically every bone in his back was cracked, his left leg was shattered. He was laid on a stretcher, which he was on so long that the blood he had lost actually stuck him to it. He was taken to Eindhoven, flown to Croydon Airport and immediately transferred to the hospital there. When he woke up, he was in a SPICA (full body) cast. To his knowledge, Brian had received no pain-killers to that point. The lower broken vertebrae had fortunately not severed his spinal cord, but he was not told then, or indeed later, about the full extent of his injuries.
He received penicillin injections every six hours, night and day, for six weeks. From there, he was transferred to Warwick, where the SPICA cast was taken off, to Poole Hospital, where a cast was put on his left leg, then to Bovington and then, finally, to Shaftesbury, where the efficiencies of a military operation were not, largely, suffocated by military routine.
It was, Brian remembers, ‘entirely run by military personnel – nurses, doctors, surgeons and medical staff – this Hospital was run in a relaxed and pleasant manner and had an overriding sense of purpose that inspired one to think that the best would be done, whatever one’s injuries, and with the benefit of dedicated staff.’
‘Ward one was a privilege ward for the severely wounded, and had extra benefits such as a pint of free beer each day, brown ale or light ale, the company of very pretty girls, who brought round chocolates and other goodies that were in very short supply outside. It was a truly wonderful place that inspired confidence, I have much for which to thank that hospital.’
Not least was Major, later Sir John, Charnley, an orthopaedic surgeon of great skill. Brian remembers that: ‘Even in those far off days he was looked upon as a genius. He was held in great esteem by all the staff and patients. When I was first taken into his consulting area I thought that this very young-looking, fair-haired man of small stature, could not possibly be the surgeon; he looked like a youth apart, that is, from the major’s pip on his shoulder. I must admit to being taken aback by his appearance, but he was clearly not a man who would stand fools gladly. His first words to me were: “Who put this monstrosity on you?”, pointing to my leg plaster. “Poole Hospital, sir”, I replied. “Useless, absolutely useless,” he continued, pointing to the area where there was an obvious gap between leg and plaster.
‘He had the plaster removed completely and although the leg bones had not joined and it could be bent about in the middle it was not painful; the tiny pieces of bone were dead. They left the leg like that for some time while they made me ready for an operation. About this time, back home, my half-brother was dying in a very unpleasant way, anxious to help, I asked the Major if he could get me home, so he promptly fixed me up with a calliper that transferred the weight from my feet and put it on my groin, so that I was able to walk with a broken leg.’
Finally, the time came for Brian’s operation. It was 8 May 1945 – VE Day. ‘I was taken off early to the operating theatre, Major Charnley removed all the dead bone from my leg, then took out the top of my left hip – that is the bit of hip you hang your trousers on – and grafted that into my leg! It was all screwed together with a steel plate, which is stamped with a war office arrow and with W.D. for War Dept. Prior to trying out the procedure on Brian, Charnley had done the same procedure on a goat, to ensure that it would theoretically work. Sadly, Charnley could not obtain enough bone from Brian’s hips to rebuild the leg to its original length, so one leg is shorter than the other. The other drawback from the operation: ‘Losing my hips. I have to wear braces or my flaming pants fall down!’
As well as the ground-breaking procedures, Shaftesbury was different in other ways. Brian recalls: ‘At the end of our ward there was a partly-glazed double door that looked out on to a large area of well-mown grass, about a hundred yards away was a wooden hut, all by itself. Just a wooden hut.
‘But inside this hut was a bar, just like a small clubhouse, with tables, chairs and a dartboard. John Charnley had set this up. Now, when you could make your own way to this hut, you could go and have a drink with your pals. So it was everyone’s ambition to get to the hut. I saw young men pass out trying. The golden rule about the hut was that you had to make it entirely on your own, with no assistance at all. Your pals could cheer you on, but they were not allowed to help. Came the day. Yours truly was going to have a go at the hut. My mates gathered round to cheer me on, “Come on Brian, you can do it,” they shouted, as I struggled with my heavy plaster and crutches.
‘The long period in hospital had reduced my weight and muscle tone considerably. It took me ages but, with lots of encouragement from my pals, I got there – only to discover that they did not sell beer, only scrumpy. Two pints of scrumpy and my crutches failed to go where I put them.
‘How I got back to the ward I do not know, but I woke up the next morning in my own bed. To my dying day I will remember the nursing Sister, first thing in the morning, coming through the double doors clutching a collection of false arms, legs and crutches, all wet with dew from being discarded outdoors the night before, exclaiming: “Come on now, who do these belong to?”’
Brian’s engineering background linked with Charnley’s never-ending ability to think up contraptions to help those in his charge. Brian would help Charnley to make up these inventions for other soldiers. Ultimately, Brian went off to Lake House in the Woodford valley to recuperate. Charnley did a hip replacement the procedure of which was, according to contemporary accounts, ‘as much a feat of carpentry as the surgeon’s skill.’
John Charnley would go on to be one of the world’s most respected orthopaedic surgeons, and the founder of a specialist hip-replacement unit at Wrightington hospital; he died in 1982. Brian Guy went on to work as an engineer at Winfrith and now lives in Swanage.