Forcible Feeding: the Suffragette Stance

History of Medicine Undergraduate Essay Prize 2018

The forcible feeding of the suffragettes, although shocking in its practice, was a useful device to heighten public support for the fight for suffrage and gain recruits to their cause. Forcible feeding was used by the government on suffragette prisoners who were on hunger-strike as an alternative to realising these female prisoners early.  After being adopted by the suffragette leadership and mobilised throughout the rank-and-file suffragettes, this weapon became highly effective for the suffragettes as it demonstrated both the brutality of the authorities, and the resilience of the women. When the reports of the first women who were forcibly fed were released into the public domain, there was an immediate public outcry.  This indignation came not only from the W.S.P.U. themselves in their newspaper Votes for Women, but also within parliament and the national press, where terms such as ‘violence’, ‘torture’ and ‘violated bodies’ were used to intensify opposition to this procedure.

Images of suffragettes suffering in prisons, and depictions of them being forcibly fed were used to gain sympathy from the general public and increase public awareness for female suffrage. One of these propaganda posters was a pamphlet named ‘grace before meat’, which depicted a well-dressed caricature of Mr Mckenna who worked for the Home Office, brutally force-feeding a suffragette (figure 1).  The message of this pamphlet was that a supposedly civilised country was committing barbaric acts on some of their female citizens, showing the conflict between those two ideals. The suffragettes also pushed for their propaganda material to reach as many members of the public as possible, as they urged readers to ‘pass this on to your friends’.[1] They attempted to harness the shocking nature of forcible feeding to gain the political advantage and publicise these posters to the widest audience possible. From their perspective, the harsh treatment they faced at the hands of the government was especially insulting considering they were being forced to conform to a government in which they had no part electing. Consequently, they took ownership of force-feeding, minimising the role the government had in publicising the procedure, and thus allowing themselves the platform to manipulate the reporting of it to the public.

Figure 1.

The official narrative of forcible feeding which emerged from the government stated that forcible feeding was a necessity because of the antagonising actions of the suffragettes. In effect, the government claimed that they were protecting the suffragettes and providing treatment in prison, however, they actually abused the process of force-feeding, and instead used it to punish the suffragettes who were nationally humiliating the government. The government aimed to purposefully degrade the suffragettes by not cleaning out or changing the tubes used during the forcible feeding procedure between prisoners, making the process even more unsanitary. Rose Lamartine Yates, a suffragette, confirms this viewpoint as she publicly wrote that ‘the system consists of enforced degradation from beginning to end’.[2] This issue was also readily mocked by the government as was shown when Keir Hardie, the Labour leader, raised a question about force-feeding for discussion, and was met with roars of laughter from other MPs, showing how they trivialised the matter. The government remained largely out of touch on how this issue was influencing the public, as when six women were forcibly fed in October 1909 in Birmingham, twelve more women volunteered to go to prison to face forcible feeding almost immediately afterwards in Newcastle. This demonstrates how the government often did not judge public opinion accurately, and how they were, in some instances, counterproductive when launching their attack on the suffragettes. So, both the suffragettes and the government had the capability to use and manipulate forcible feeding for their own advantage, but it was the suffragettes who had the upper-hand in this instance, relegating the government into second place.

The original intention of the suffragettes’ hunger strike was to gain political prisoner status. It was only after the group saw the potential benefits from widescale implementation of the practice and how it could be manipulated, that it was developed further. Thus, the hunger strike was promptly transformed into a protest carried out by a mass of militant women. In her writing to the editor of The Times, Rose Lamartine Yates claims that the suffragettes ‘opened the eyes of humanity and forced elementary reforms on the prison authorities’, showing how the suffragettes had the opportunity to influence the public’s perception of them.[3] The idea of forcible feeding, which the suffragettes largely themselves propagated, was so shocking a procedure to much of the public because it challenged contemporary norms regarding conventional feminine behaviour. Therefore, one of the key strengths of hunger striking and force-feeding originated in the fact that it challenged the authority of the male-dominated medical profession and helped to develop a more modern notion of what it meant to be female.

With women suffering from the laceration of the throat, stomach damage, heart complaints as well as the potential of pneumonia if food entered the lungs, forcible feeding could be highly dangerous, and potentially fatal in inexperienced hands. A surgeon named Forbes Ross, stated in The Observer that he considered forcible feeding to be ‘an act of brutality beyond common endurance’.[4] Ross was actually not an avid supporter of the female suffrage movement, choosing to remain largely indifferent, but he still spoke out about the potential dangers proving that the risks of the procedure had the potential to overshadow the political nature of the events. Numerous individuals, including many suffragettes, and the Labour leader Keir Hardie, described the procedure as more akin to medial torture than medical care, showing how scarring the procedure was on the individuals, and how politics was able to broaden the debate on forcible feeding. Furthermore, suffragette May Billinghurst reported that ‘it was quite impossible to set the tube up the left nostril although [the doctor] tried with all his might…this caused me excruciating agony’.[5] This shows that the prison authorities were unnecessarily brutal when it came to administering force-feeding and were not concerned with the health and feelings of the individual women. Additionally, the Earl Russell, an MP, asked the government ‘why their treatment in prison is more severe than that usually awarded to political offenders’.[6] So, the government were imposing unnecessary amounts of suffering onto suffragette prisoners through force-feeding, and thus, in reality, transformed this medical procedure into a cruel punishment.

Figure 2.

In a letter to a fellow suffragette, Lilian Lenton describes how she would ‘heave at the right moment’ to make herself sick after the withdrawal of the forcible feeding tube, showing how some of the suffragettes manipulated the authorities by making the conditions under which they were living in prison worse.[7] A poster published and distributed directly by the W.S.P.U. portrays a suffragette being brutally forcibly fed by the government, and the poster instructs the public to ‘vote against the government’, showing their attempt to mobilise the public through print (figure 2).[8] However, they were not always successful in this manipulation and they did not always receive positive attention, especially in the early days before the policy of force-feeding had been properly implemented. The Evening News reported negatively on this evident exploitation, and counter-argued that they should suffer the full proper punishment. So, the suffragettes were not unchallenged on the issue of forcible feeding and did receive some negative attention for their tactics. That being said, the procedure did have some deeper ramifications, as it prompted questions about the ethics of performing this seriously dangerous procedure on sane, unwilling participants. Prior to its use as a punishment for suffragettes on hunger strike, forcible feeding was predominantly used on patients in asylums. So, the forcible feeding of the suffragettes by the state gained significance as it raised deeper questions within society about the jurisdiction of the government, and it opened up a discussion about the role of ethics in medicine.

When advised that she should stop her hunger strike, May Billinghurst noted ‘how impossible that would be to me to throw away the only weapon left to me to fight for freedom’.[9] The suffragettes were aware of the power they possessed in using their bodies to fight for their freedom, and the right to vote, whilst also feeling limited in other ways by the actions of the government. The controversial nature of forcible feeding, and the nature of the relationship the government had with forcible feeding, was magnified by the conventional Edwardian characterisation of these women as vulnerable individuals, an idea that they themselves promoted to some extent. The suffragette Lilian Lenton states that ‘[the government had] resorted to force against the women, which is symbolic of a savage beating a female into submission’.[10] The brutality of forcible feeding eclipsed the original intentions of the suffrage movement and went on to influence the legacy of the suffragettes, and also opened up discussions about the capabilities and roles women could undertake within society. Through suffering forcible feeding and fighting towards getting the vote for women, these women were also working at breaking down barriers put in place because of their gender, and re-defining their roles as women within society. The suffragette stance on forcible feeding became significant as it allowed these women to take ownership of their own narrative and push back against the government to continue to pursue their fight for female suffrage. Forcible feeding transgressed deeper than just being a political tool used by both sides, and went on to mark one of the most complex and controversial aspects of the suffrage campaign. The suffragettes were given the ability to manipulate the government and the public with just their bodies, showing how they were able to harness the power of their physicality and use it to their advantage. Through their commentary on their experiences with forcible feeding, these women were able to gain some much-needed agency. The way in which these suffragettes took control of a situation in which they originally had very little and shaped the narrative of forcible feeding as a whole empowered and inspired so many women, and thus made forcible feeding one of the most significant aspects of the female suffrage campaign.


[1] Papers of Emily Wilding Davison- The Women’s Library, London- 7EWD.

[2] Articles and lectures by Rose Lamartine Yates-The Women’s Library, London- 7RLY/1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Miller, ‘‘A prostitution of the profession’? Forcible feeding, prison doctors, suffrage and the British State, 1909-1914’, p. 243.

[5] Manuscript account by May Billinghurst- The Women’s Library- 7RMB/A/24.

[6] PRISON AND PRISONERS (4) OTHER: Suffragettes- The National Archives, London- HO 144/882/167074.

[7] Lilian Lenton to Nina Popplewell- The Women’s Library, London- 7POP/1.

[8] Manuscript account by May Billinghurst- The Women’s Library, London. [7RMB/A/24]

[9] Manuscript account by May Billinghurst- The Women’s Library, London- 7RMB/A/24.

[10] Lilian Lenton to Nina Popplewell- The Women’s Library, London- 7POP/1.



Brown, Alyson, ‘Conflicting Objectives: Suffragette Prisoners and Female Prison Staff in Edwardian England’, Women’s Studies, 31 (2002), 627-645.

Green, Barbara, Spectacular confessions: autobiography, performative activism, and the sites of suffrage 1905-1938 (London: Macmillan, 1997).

Geddes, J.F, ‘Culpable Complicity: the medical profession and the forcible feeding of suffragettes, 1909-1914’, Women’s History Review, 17 (2008), 79-94.

Miller, Ian, ‘Necessary Torture? Vivisection, Suffragette Force-Feeding, and Responses to Scientific Medicine in Britain c. 1870–1920’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 64 (2009), 333-372.

Purvis, June, ‘The prison experiences of the suffragettes in Edwardian Britain’, Women’s History Review, 4(1995), 103-133.

Testing Our Nerve: Espionage, Chemical Weapons and Human Experimentation

By David Peace and Ulf Schmidt

On Sunday 4th March 2018 former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury – home of the military research facility Porton Down. It is believed that both were purposefully exposed to a chemical nerve agent. The case is now being treated as an attempted murder by counter-terrorism police.

What is dangerous about nerve agents? Among some of the most lethal chemical poisons ever produced by man, nerve agents disrupt the mechanisms used by nerves to transfer messages to organs that provide vital functions. The disruption is caused by inhibiting the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, a neurotransmitter. Poisoning by a nerve agent can lead to dramatic convulsions and death by asphyxiation or cardiac arrest due to the loss of the nervous system’s control over vital organ functions.

Around 21 people, including three of the responding police officers, received medical treatment after the suspected attack on Skripal. Three people remained initially hospitalised after the poisoning – Skripal and his daughter, who were both in a critical condition, and British police officer, Sgt. Nick Bailey, who though conscious and talking remained hospitalised. By the time of writing, Bailey and Skripal’s daughter Yulia have both been released from hospital, the latter to an unknown secure location, after their condition had markedly improved. Sergei Skripal’s condition is also said to be improving. Given the type of agent to have been used, Yulia and Sergei’s recovery has been quite unexpected, to say the least.

Police and government officials originally refused to publicly speculate who is behind the attempted murder of Skripal, yet many across social media platforms were quick to raise the similarities between this case and the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko – another former Russian spy who was poisoned in London by means of a cup of tea laced with radioactive polonium-210. What can we say for sure about this event?

Sergei Skripal is a former Russian military intelligence officer for the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) – the foreign military intelligence agency of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. In December 2004, Sergei Skripal was arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor organisation to the KGB. He was tried and convicted of high treason and imprisoned. The case was made public in August 2006.

According to the FSB, in 1995 Skripal had been recruited by British Intelligence agent Pablo Miller, then under the alias Antonio Alvarez de Hidalgo, in Spain. According to Russian prosecutors, Skripal had begun working for the UK’s MI6 shortly after, by passing on state secrets, including the names of Russian intelligence agents active in Britain. After being charged and found guilty of high treason in the form of espionage, Skripal was convicted and sentenced to thirteen years in prison. The story could have ended there. But it didn’t.

On June 27th, 2010, the FBI arrested ten suspected Russian sleeper agents as part of an investigation into the ‘Illegals Program’. Posing as ordinary American citizens, the group of sleeper agents had intended to infiltrate and build a network of contacts with academics, industrialists and policy makers to gain access to sensitive intelligence. All ten of the apprehended agents were flown to Vienna on July 9th, 2010, where they were exchanged for four Russian nationals, three of whom were convicted and imprisoned by Russia on espionage charges. Skripal was among the group of four Russian nationals released as part of the spy exchange, his name being included in the swap on the insistence of the UK government.

On release, Skripal settled in Salisbury in 2011 under asylum protection of the UK government. Eight years later in March 2018 his 33-year old daughter Yulia came to visit her father in Salisbury after having returned to Moscow in 2014. It was during this visit that the two are suspected to have been exposed to a nerve agent, probably in liquid form on the door handle of Sergei Skripal’s house. It appears that soon after, samples taken from the site exposed to a poisonous substance were examined by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) in Porton Down where the substance is believed to have tested positive for a rare nerve agent – Novichok.

Novichok – which literally means ‘Newcomer’ – are ‘fourth generation’ nerve agents which are extremely lethal and fast acting chemical agents developed by the then Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s. The aim of these compounds, which were developed by a branch of the State Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology at Shikhany, near Volgograd, was to be undetectable by standard NATO detection equipment and safer to handle. It is believed that there are approximately one hundred variants of Novichok agents. The development of Novichok agents were part of an offensive chemical weapons programme code-named FOLIANT which was so secret that Russia, despite having signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1993, did not declare them to the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Although western intelligence agencies were aware of their existence, the non-disclosure of Novichok agents was tacitly accepted in return for the ratification and implementation of the CWC by the international community since the 1990s.

This is an unusual and distressing case which raises many problems for police investigators trying to ascertain what happened in Salisbury on that March weekend. A month later, the OPCW Technical Secretariat confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that the substance used against the Skripals in Salisbury was an extremely toxic nerve agent and that the samples collected and examined were of ‘high purity’. The ‘almost complete absence of impurities’, together with other evidence, adds further weight to the suggestion that high level experts and state actors may have been involved in the production, planning and execution of what is an unprecedented nerve agent attack on European soil, at least since the Second World War. On 13th April, the UK national security advisor, Mark Sedwill, informed his NATO counterpart, Jens Stoltenberg, that only Russia had apparently the ‘technical means, operational experience and the motive’ for such an attack. He also informed NATO that Russia had apparently commenced a programme to train special personnel in the delivery of Novichok agents in the 2000s and that this had included the delivery by “application to door handles”, as in the case of the Salisbury attack.

Having happened on the door-step of Porton Down, the case raises a series of issues – how prepared, for example, is the UK in the 21st Century to deal with the use of weaponised chemical agents in acts of crime, terrorism and warfare? The shock to the local community around Salisbury is obviously profound, not only in terms of the ongoing decontamination process in nine sites which is likely to take months, and in relation to the reduction in trade and the value of housing stock in the area, but also in terms of the ‘tainted’ image associated with the city among visiting tourists and observers.

At the same time, the case highlights, more than ever, the importance of the CWC as an internationally agreed framework for the systematic monitoring, verification, and destruction of chemical weapon stockpiles in the world. For most governments, the use of chemical weapons is seen as ‘morally indefensible’ and a ‘repugnant crime’, which neither state nor non-state actors can be permitted to commit without impunity. Historically, it is a subject deemed to be so sensitive that politicians sometimes feel justified to act in the name of ‘human civilization’ beyond the national limits of their political mandate. Yet it also touches upon areas of secrecy that nations guard most closely.

The UK has historically been at the forefront of investigations into the manufacture and use of weaponised chemical agents ever since it was attacked by Germany with choking and blistering agents during the First World War. Yet, it was the discovery of the weaponised-production of the highly toxic nerve agent sarin by Nazi Germany that prompted the upscaled covert research into chemical weapons at Porton Down. Included in this upscaled research was the non-therapeutic experimentation with nerve agents on human subjects.

From 1945-1989 an estimated 3,400 servicemen are believed to have taken part in nerve agent trials. With the upscaled use of human experimentation to meet the demands of this evolving method of warfare came ancillary crises and challenges in regulatory and ethical practice. Several questions arise: Did subjects give voluntary consent? How was consent obtained? Were the risks explained to the subjects? What safeguards were taken? How was research regulated? These questions are directed towards protecting the fundamental rights of human participants in non-therapeutic trials. Yet, were the ethical standards to protect human rights, as outlined in the Nuremberg Code from 1947, able to sufficiently regulate highly secret military research under the covert demands of the Cold War?

As the case of Sergei Skripal all too dreadfully shows, these questions are not confined to the historical archive. When moving into another age of increasing uncertainty, when the borders of political reality are shifting with each day, the philosophical underpinnings of how we envisage human rights in cultures of secrecy and research become as pressing as they were in the past. Chemical weapons are no longer confined to the battlefield and have been used in an unconventional way to engender a new type of terrorism. Yet perhaps even more unsettling seems to be the fact that the growing use of chemical weapons is becoming ‘normalised’ in modern-day conflicts. What remains certain is the UK’s need to understand these weapons, to know how they have been and are manufactured, where they have been manufactured and how to treat those who have been exposed to them. With this comes the demands of scientific research and once more the ancillary crisis of where human rights lie in relation to secret science.


To find out more please see:

Ulf Schmidt, Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Ulf Schmidt interview with Clare McDonnell on BBC5Live about the development and nature of chemical weapons in the wake of the suspected use of nerve agent to incapacitate former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. Interview starts at 1:11:00 –


Ulf Schmidt is a Professor of Modern History and Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities at the University of Kent. David Peace is a PhD Candidate in the School of History at the University of Kent.

Synthetic Biology and the Public Good

Recent innovations in biotechnology have borne possibilities in the biosciences unparalleled in human history. Today synthetic biology is a rapidly developing field with important potential applications for human welfare.

However, it is undeniable that such innovations raise fundamental ethical concerns about the nature of human intervention in biological engineering, biosecurity and open access research, the formulation of commercial risks and benefits, and the potential impact on the lives of future people.

As a response to these fundamental concerns, this one-day conference will explore questions raised by this new technology in the fields of biotechnology and industry, education and democratic oversight, and biosecurity from historical and current perspectives. To conclude, the conference will explore the possibility of the humanities in conversation with synthetic biologists. Speakers will include senior scientists, academics and policy makers.

All Welcome – Registration Required

To register please click here.

Please contact David Peace ( for more information.

This event is generously supported by the Eastern Academic Research Consortium, Kent Graduate School, Kent School of History and the Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities.

Date and Time:
Friday 23rd June 2017, 09:00 – 17:00


Sibson Lecture Theatre 2, University of Kent, Canterbury, CT2 7NZ, UK.

Please refer to the following map detailing how to get to the event.


09:00 – Sibson Building Foyer

Grant Success!

The Centre is pleased to announce that Dr Claire Jones, our deputy director, has been awarded a prestigious “Academy of Medical Sciences Springboard – Health of the Public 2040” grant, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust. The scheme funds innovative cross-disciplinary projects in the health social sciences and medical humanities with the aim of identifying and solving some of the main health challenges the UK population will face by 2040.

Given the growing oral health inequalities in Britain, Claire’s project ‘Oral Health Inequalities, Oral Hygiene Cultures in England, 1870-1970,’ is extremely timely and aims to inform future dental health policy and practice. The award will fund a post for a research assistant, a series of public engagement activities with the British Dental Association and its Museum and an interdisciplinary academic conference.

Congratulations to Claire for such an excellent achievement!



Fully-funded AHRC PhD studentship Available from October 2017

“False Teeth for the Masses”: Artificial Teeth as Technologies, Prostheses and Commodities in Britain, 1848-1948

The Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities at the University of Kent in collaboration with the Science Museum invites applications for a fully-funded three-year PhD studentship on artificial teeth in Britain, 1848-1948. The studentship award has been made by the Science Museums & Archives Consortium under the AHRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme. The project, due to begin in October 2017, will be supervised by Dr Claire L. Jones at the University of Kent and Dr Oisín Wall at the Science Museum.

Project Information

Artificial teeth have long been important aids for the toothless, but from the mid-nineteenth century, these items became popular consumer items. Enabled by the increasing use of anaesthesia and the professionalization of dentistry, the number of companies producing false teeth from new, cheaper and easier to work materials rapidly expanded; a huge variety of artificial teeth and dentures became available in a market that eventually came to be dominated by the standardised sets made available through the NHS from 1948.

Drawing on the artificial teeth and dental collections at the Science Museum, this project seeks to examine the transformation in the consumption and use of artificial teeth and dentures in Britain between 1848 and 1948. The working questions facing a PhD student are:

  1. What were the respective roles of manufacturers, dentists (professional and non-professional), retailers and the health and beauty industry in shaping this transformation?
  2. What were the main design features of artificial teeth and dentures during this period, and how and why did they appeal to patients/users/consumers?
  3. What was the relationship between supply and demand for these technologies?
  4. How did social conventions and variables (age, class, gender, geography etc.) affect patient/user/consumer choice for artificial teeth?
  5. How might research into artificial teeth be communicated to public audiences?

Is this for you?

Candidates should have, or expect to attain, a good degree and should meet AHRC eligibility criteria:

To apply for the scholarship, you must:

  • Hold (or expect to achieve in 2017) a Masters Degree with Merit or Distinction;
  • Hold an undergraduate degree with First-Class or Upper Second-Class Honours in relevant fields or subjects;
  • Be available to commence your academic studies in the UK at the beginning of October 2017

How to apply

Applications should include:

  • a curriculum vitae (no more than 2 sides of A4);
  • a sample of writing (3,000 words max);
  • a covering letter including a 500-word statement detailing how you plan to engage with the above proposal;
  • names and contact details of two academic references

For more details on the award, see:

Contact us

For further details, or to informally discuss the studentship, please contact Dr Claire L. Jones.

Please send applications to by 1st May 2017. Interviews will be held in May 2017. link

Barbershop Music: Literary Stereotype or Social Practice?

The Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies & The Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities are happy to welcome Margaret Pelling (Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Oxford) to present the lecture ‘Barbershop Music: Literary Stereotype or Social Practice?’ on Thursday 17th February 2017. All are welcome, please feel free to join us!

Margaret Pelling is a Senior Research Associate at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine in Oxford. Her earlier research was concerned with the history of public health in 19th-century Britain, and in particular the epidemiological ideas of figures such as William Budd, John Snow, William Farr and John Simon. Her research now focuses primarily on English history between 1500 and 1700, focusing on the less-regarded lower orders of medical practitioners, from barbers and barber surgeons to nurses and ‘old women’, but also on the health experience of different groups such as children, apprentices, men without women, and the elderly, and aspects of shared experience such as diet and urbanisation. Her work is also concerned with iconography, the gender- and status-related problems experienced by male practitioners, the links between medicine and politics, and the relationship between the public and the private. She is currently planning to take forward work on barbers, with particular interest in their ubiquity, their role in self-representation and cosmetic improvement, and their functions in literature and culture, as well as the importance to males of all periods of the hair and the beard.


Human Experimentation at Ravensbrück Concentration Camp



By Kate Docking

A report on the fourth post-war Ravensbrück Concentration Camp trial, written by Deputy Judge Advocate Halse in 1948, stated that medical experiments were performed at the camp ‘in the most brutal manner by doctors who were apparently stationed there for the purpose of experimenting on human guinea pigs.’ These human experiments occurred at Ravensbrück from August 1942 onwards. In total, 74 women were subject to sulphonamide drug and bone transplantation experiments, which took place without their consent. Lily Undun, who was an inmate at Ravensbrück, recalled that if the women refused to be experimented on, they were ‘shut into bunkers, and later the operations were performed by force.’ The initial order for the experiments to be conducted came from Himmler, who was head of the SS. National Socialist medical personnel stipulated that the experiments were performed in order to discover whether sulphonamide was an effective treatment for battle wounds. Foreign bodies such as wood or glass were thus inserted into artificial injuries in order to induce infection, and sulphonamide was used to treat the wounds. However, there was no real scientific reason behind the operations. The experiments were performed by some local doctors, who were known as the ‘Hohenlychen group’ as they came from a local hospital named Hohenlychen, which was located near Ravensbrück. Dr Herta Oberheuser was part of this group, and she was responsible for the post-operative care of those who had undergone experimental operations.

Sources from the seven different Ravensbrück trials and the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial reveal that Oberheuser treated patients extremely callously. As Keith Mant of the Royal Medical Army Corps noted, her post-operative care was ‘little more than sadistic.’ This is evidenced in the witness testimonies from the victims of the medical experiments. For example, Stefania Lotocka recalled that Oberheuser refused to give victims water. Stanislawa Mlodkowska Bielawska also added that when water was given, it was mixed with vinegar. This was clearly an unnecessary and cruel action performed by Oberheuser. Further, Oberheuser did not take sufficient care of the wounds that were induced by the experiments. Izabela Rek stipulated that ‘Oberheuser at first promised to dress my wounds, and, smiling, went out of the ward and we saw no more of her that day.’ Although Jadwiga Dzido described the care of Oberheuser as ‘not bad’, this sort of testimony is not typical. For instance, another victim stated that ‘Oberheuser told us herself that she could give nothing to alleviate our pains…’ The doctor deliberately refused to give the patients morphine, despite their screams of pain. Five of the women died as a result of the experiments, and six were later executed.

After the war, Oberheuser was tried at Nuremberg with ‘special responsibility and participation’ in the medical crimes at Ravensbrück. She was sentenced to twenty years in prison, but allowances were made for the time she already had served whilst in custody, and her sentence was reduced to ten years. However, she was in fact released in 1952. She then practised as a medical doctor in Germany. This led to outrage from the British Medical Association; they believed that her return to the medical profession was an affront to the ‘honour, morals and high ideals of the medical practice.’ Her medical licence was, however, later revoked by the Court of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany. Oberheuser died in a nursing home in Germany in 1978.

The thirty-five women who survived the medical experiments and the terrible conditions at Ravensbrück suffered life-long pain and disabilities. In spite of medical treatment in America, Jadwiga Dzido was permanently disabled. In addition to the bone and sulphonamide experiments, sterilisation experiments were also carried out at Ravensbrück. It is important that more details are known about the perpetrators and processes of these human experiments, in order to do justice to the victims who suffered extensively.

Kate Docking graduated from the University of Kent in 2016. She is currently studying for an MPhil in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge. Her current research project examines the representation of Nazi female perpetrators in British post-war trials and newspapers. She hopes to complete a PhD at the University of Kent on female doctors and nurses during the Third Reich.

Photo: Defendant Herta Oberheuser stands up to receive her sentencing at the Doctor’s Trial, Nuremberg 20th August 1947. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photograph #41017, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.

History Repeated?

The events of 2016 will no doubt go down in history. On Wednesday 16 November, the School of History will be hosting a roundtable discussion putting the events of 2016 into a broader historical context.

Academics from the School will discuss the legacies of European revolutions, the impact of the Great Depression, and the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, through to the constitutional crises of the twenty-first century. What do these events tell us about the strength and weaknesses of democratic politics and moral values? Why do ideologies of hate and division seem to thrive in times of economic crises? Can a historical approach help us to develop a response to contemporary events?

All are welcome to explore these ideas in this discussion, and to join academics in the School to consider these issues over a glass of wine and snacks.

For more information, please contact either Dr Mark Hurst ( or Professor Ulf Schmidt (


Paul Nash and the Landscape of War

By Chloe Trainor

“No pen or drawing can convey this country . . . Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man . . . the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease . . . I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”

So wrote Paul Nash in a letter from the front to his wife Margaret, where he was working as an official war artist. Initially serving in a combatant role, Nash was wounded in Ypres in 1917, and was returned home to Britain. However, he requested to return to the front as an artist, where he assumed the responsibility of documenting within his paintings the horrors he observed. In claiming that the message of his work was ‘feeble’ and ‘inarticulate’, Nash was not reflecting upon the limitations of his skill as an artist; rather, his words revealed his own inability to properly comprehend the scale and intensity of trauma and suffering he had both observed, and experienced. Nash’s work signalled a new approach to documenting war in art; it was no longer heroic, and in pieces such as We are Making a New World (1918), Nash’s condemnation of war is observed in the ironic optimism of the title juxtaposed against the reality of his barren, wasted landscape. His work was potent and honest in its brutal expression of war, and testament to his enduring legacy as an artist is evidenced in the Tate Britain’s most recent exhibition of his work.

The subject matter of Nash’s art from this period reveal a man struggling to come to terms with the unimaginable horror he has witnessed. Nash tried to give expression to the unutterable, overwhelming pain and mental exhaustion which ravished the minds of so many, packaged in  medicalised terms like ‘shell shock’ and ‘war neurosis’, which failed to do justice to the experience of those who suffered. Traditionally a landscape artist, people were rarely the subject of Nash’s work, and where they do feature  they are often faceless, remote characters -ghost-like, in fact, as Andrew Graham-Dixon observes in his BBC4 documentary British Art at War: Bomberg, Sickert and Nash. Their ghostly appearance not only alludes to the war dead, but to the war broken, and in his decision to depict featureless, expressionless faces in paintings like The Menin Road (1919), I think Nash observes the impossibility of ever properly being able to convey in painting the faces of men who were overcome by feelings of fear, anger, hopelessness, and despair. Instead, the landscape of war is made to speak of their experience; the dislocation from a familiar way of life is confirmed in the desolation of their surroundings. In We are Making a New World the sky is bloodied and brooding, trees stand like fractured, broken stumps, and the earth itself is pock-marked and oozing, littered with craters left by shells. Whilst people are often not present in the work of Paul Nash, human suffering nearly always is.

The Menin Road (Art.IWM ART 2242) image: A devastated battlefield pocked with rain-filled shell-holes, flooded trenches and shattered trees lit by unearthly beams of light from an apocalyptic sky. Two figures pick their way along a tree-lined road, the road punctuated by shell-holes and lined by tree stumps. The foreground is filled with concrete blocks, barbed wire and corrugated iron, while columns of mud from artillery fire. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
The Menin Road (Art.IWM ART 2242) image: A devastated battlefield pocked with rain-filled shell-holes, flooded trenches and shattered trees lit by unearthly beams of light from an apocalyptic sky. Two figures pick their way along a tree-lined road, the road punctuated by shell-holes and lined by tree stumps. The foreground is filled with concrete blocks, barbed wire and corrugated iron, while columns of mud from artillery fire rise up in the background. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

We are Making a New World (Art.IWM ART 1146) image: The view over a desolate landscape with shattered trees, the earth a mass of shell holes. The sun hangs high in the sky, beams of light shining down through heavy, earth-coloured clouds. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
We are Making a New World (Art.IWM ART 1146) image: The view over a desolate landscape with shattered trees, the earth a mass of shell holes. The sun hangs high in the sky, beams of light shining down through heavy, earth-coloured clouds. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

The Mule Track (Art.IWM ART 1153) image: The view across a battlefield undergoing heavy bombardment. The shattered landscape is disected by an angular duckboard path, along which a mule train is travelling, their small figues just visible in the distance. The animals rear and panic at a nearby explosion as the water from a flooded trench shoots up from the surface. In the sky there are large clouds of yellow and grey coloured smoke, with rubble flying high into the air in the foreground. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
The Mule Track (Art.IWM ART 1153) image: The view across a battlefield undergoing heavy bombardment. The shattered landscape is disected by an angular duckboard path, along which a mule train is travelling, their small figues just visible in the distance. The animals rear and panic at a nearby explosion as the water from a flooded trench shoots up from the surface. In the sky there are large clouds of yellow and grey coloured smoke, with rubble flying high into the air in the foreground. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

A Howitzer Firing (Art.IWM ART 1152) image: A scene with four British artillerymen firing a Howitzer gun. They stand beneath a canopy of camoflage netting. To the right a blast of light erupts from the muzzle of the gun, and the men on the left shield their faces from the brightness. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
A Howitzer Firing (Art.IWM ART 1152) image: A scene with four British artillerymen firing a Howitzer gun. They stand beneath a canopy of camoflage netting. To the right a blast of light erupts from the muzzle of the gun, and the men on the left shield their faces from the brightness. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

The Ypres Salient at Night (Art.IWM ART 1145) image: A night scene showing three soldiers on the fire step of a trench surprised by a brilliant star shell lighting up the view over the battlefield. On the left there is a flooded shell-hole, beyond which stand three other soldiers, overlooked by a woodland of tree stumps. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
The Ypres Salient at Night (Art.IWM ART 1145) image: A night scene showing three soldiers on the fire step of a trench surprised by a brilliant star shell lighting up the view over the battlefield. On the left there is a flooded shell-hole, beyond which stand three other soldiers, overlooked by a woodland of tree stumps. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: