America Enters WWI 100 Years Ago -Clevelanders Arrived First

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***An earlier version of this story was broadcast in 2014***

On August 6th Americans marked the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I.   But much of Europe had been fighting since the summer of 1914.   A group of Clevelanders were among the first Americans to enter the "Great War" going over in 2014 to help the British and French.  

What this medical team did helped the allies save wounded soldiers but also helped save the lives of thousands of soldiers in the ensuing years.


On the same day Great Britain entered the war, the U-S declared neutrality.  But a surgical team of doctors and nurses from Cleveland did go to Europe in 1914 – the first American medical unit in the war,  with some influence from an ambassador who grew up in Cleveland.

The 14 men and women came from Lakeside Hospital and were led by chief surgeon Dr. George Crile – a man who would later change the medical landscape of Cleveland.  Archivist Jennifer Nieves of the Dittrick Museum of Medical History at Case Western Reserve University says the Lakeside Unit treated soldiers with horrific wounds from the trenches in this new, mechanized form of war.

“There were many soldiers who came in with their faces blown away.”

And survived.

“And survived,” answers Nieves.  “So we start to see dental surgery coming into use.  The American Hospital was one of the first hospitals in France that had a dental department.”

And because Crile already had an international reputation,  notable doctors from Britain and France came to learn from Dr. Crile and his Lakeside Hospital team. University Hospitals archivist Dianne O’Malia says the Clevelanders brought medical innovations to the Allies, using new techniques that saved lives.

Anesthesia tanks brought to France by the Lakeside surgical unit.

“Crile and his team were some of the very first people to introduce transfusions to the British army and they also had an innovation in the delivery of the anesthetic that they provided which was nitrous oxide.  It provided some advantages over ether anesthetic.  The recovery time was quicker. “

It was Crile who suggested using intravenous saline solutions to stabilize badly injured soldiers – men who had been considered too far gone to save.  He also suggested moving the initial triage centers closer to the front lines.

“So they thought the quicker they could get these wounded from the front to the base hospitals where they could receive more than just the stabilizations that was available at the front lines,” says O’Malia, “They saved a lot of lives.”

That was the invention of the field hospital.

The medical team from Cleveland were treating patients in a new Paris high school that was reconfigured into a military hospital.  They had the entire third floor with 150 beds, an operating room, and a research lab.

The whole reason this American group joined the war as early as 1914 had to with the American Ambassador to France, a former Ohio Governor.  

“They were approached in 1914 by the Ambassador to France who was Myron Herrick, a Clevelander and a good friend of Crile’s,” noted medical archivist Jennifer Nieves.  

“Crile was approached by Herrick and several members of the American Hospital in Paris.  They wanted to form a military hospital and Herrick just had this idea that Crile would be good person for this because he was doing a lot of research on shock here in Cleveland and mass trauma.”

Dr. Crile and his team did see emotional trauma on a mass scale in France - in both soldiers and civilians.

“You know a lot of these men were out in the field 6 months at a time.  They didn’t eat, they didn’t sleep, they didn’t eat well, they didn’t bathe for 6 months,” says Nieves.

“So when they came in to the hospital, exhaustion was the first thing that really was noticed. Very few of them showed any real pain even though they were in pain. It was sort of the body’s way of shutting down.”

The Lakeside Unit had the entire third floor of a high school with 150 beds, an operating room, and a research lab.

“It was a school that had not opened yet so they repurposed the school into an ambulance,” explains O’Malia, “ which is the French term for a military hospital.”   

The first Lakeside Unit working in 1915 was made uo of Doctors Crile and William Lower with neurologist Charles Stone, residents Edward Kieger, Leroy Sherry, and Lyman Huffman.   Agatha Hodgins and Mable Littleton were anesthetists.  Operating room nurses were Iva Davidson and Ruth Roberts.   William Crozier was brought in for research and Amy Rowland was record keeper for the unit.  (photo courtesy CWRU)

The Cleveland team took notes, made some pretty graphic photographs, and kept diaries about their experiences.  Those were compiled in a 2014 exhibition at the Dittrick Museum. 

In one diary entry on display, Crile describes his trip home in early 1915 on board the Lusitania, just three months before it was sunk by a German U-boat.  A fellow passenger was Frank Seiberling , the founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.

“One of the accounts in his diary is that at his dinner table was the president of the Indian Motorcycle Company And a young couple who were traveling around Europe  buying furnishings for their new home in Akron,” says Nieves.

Dianne O'Malia, an archivist at University Hospital's Case Medical Center (L) and Jennifer Nieves, Dittrick Medical History Center registrar/archivist at 2014 exhibit.  (photo urycki/ideastream)

“And it turns out it was the Seiberlings and they were buying furnishings for Stan Hywet.  So it was one of those discoveries as you’re reading along – it just sort of gives you chills. 

“Wow! What are the chances that the Seiberlings were sitting with George Crile at dinner on the way back from war, you know, on the Lusitania.”  

Dr. George Crile sailed to and from the war on board the RMS Lusitania.  He writes in his journal that he was joined by the founder of Goodyear, Frank Seiberling, and the president of the Indian Motorcycle Co., George Hendee. Germans sunk the ship only months later.

Back home Crile put his war experiences to further use.  He wrote a detailed proposal to the U-S Surgeon General on how American army medical units should be supplied and organized.

His work helped prepare the United States when it did join the war in 1917.  That year Crile and a much larger contingent from Lakeside Hospital sailed back to France, this time as part of the U-S Army.  Upon their arrival in England they were welcomed at Buckinmgham Palace where King George thanked them for being the first detachment of the Americans Army to join the war effort.

Three years after coming home Dr.George Crile along with two other surgeons he worked with in the war, and another Cleveland doctor founded the Cleveland Clinic.


When the entire USA got involved in the war it affected the economy and the immigrant population of Cleveland.   That story is here


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