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“What Wound Did Ever Heal But By Degrees?”

This blog series supports a new exhibition at Hall's Croft: 'Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war' - The First World War, Shakespeare, and Stratford. In this post, we're making comparisons between treatment of wounds in Shakespeare's day and the medical advances of the First World War.

Sophie Malendewicz

Sickness, illness and death were no strangers to Shakespeare, who was born in the time of the Bubonic plague and was the father-in-law of Doctor John Hall. Medicine and treatments in the Elizabethan era focused on creating ‘recipes’ using a range of ingredients from ‘white wine’ and ‘oyle olive’ to ‘dragons blood’, a type of plant resin commonly used in medicine since the medieval times.[1] These elements were to be steeped and strained over the course of several days, or even weeks, to create the antidote to the relevant sickness. This extract from ‘Liber Magister Cooke’, a recipe book dating from c.1635, gives a flavour of the long process of creating ‘an oyle or balme to heale all wounds’:

Liber Magister Cooke
Extract from ‘Liber Magister Cooke’, showing a recipe for healing wounds, 1635.

“...take the leaves and blossomes [of herbs and thistles] then let them steep in the wine and oyle 24 hours the next day boyle them in annealed pot or copper vessoll on a soft fire until the wine be consumed away...”[2]

The nature of treatments for wounds in Shakespeare’s time contrasts remarkably with the new methods developed during World War One. The mechanisation of warfare led to a level of physical destruction of soldiers’ bodies that had not been seen before; medicine had to respond. Gun shot wounds were extremely common and the risk of infection was high. French surgeon Dr Alexis Carrel and English scientist Henry D. Dakin developed a system that would irrigate wounds using a sterilising solution, thus reducing the rate of infection. As a result, a gun shot wound no longer have to mean a loss of limb.[3]

Patients at Clopton House
Patients at Clopton House War Hospital, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Nurse Kathleen Talbot worked at the Clopton War Hospital in Stratford-upon-Avon, which opened on 31 May 1915. During her time there she compiled a scrapbook detailing the convoys of soldiers admitted to the three wards - Douty, Gibbins, and Wills - and displaying pictures of those treated there. This, along with a record of operations that took place at the hospital and albums kept by other nurses, offers a fascinating insight into the types of wounds doctors were faced with and the methods used to treat them. While some gun shot wounds (noted in the records as G.S.W.) did result in amputation, new methods meant a greater chance of saving the affected limb. This entry concerning Corporal Downes of the 1st London Regiment, treated on Wills Ward on 7 October 1916, suggests as much:

“Diagnosis: G.S.W. left foot. Operation: incised, drained.”[4]

The Operations Book and some war time scrapbooks are accessible via the Library and Archive Reading Room at the Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon.


[2] p205 from Liber Magister Cooke


[4] Record of operations book, p11/12.