A war against disease

Tim Sherratt and Anne-Marie Condé, ‘A war against disease’, Australasian Science, vol. 14, no. 3, Spring 1994, p. 64.


Amidst the carnage of Gallipoli, a young stretcher-bearer named Esmond Keogh struggled under enemy fire to drag his comrades to medical aid. Twenty-five years and another war later, Keogh was again far from home, serving with the Australian armed forces in the Middle East. However, Bill Keogh (as he was known by then) was neither a stretcher-bearer nor soldier, he was still saving lives, but now as a medical scientist.

Bullets, shells and bombs are not the only bringers of death in war, disease also takes a terrible toll. The work of medical scientists, like Keogh, dramatically reduced Australian casualties in World War 2, helping to ensure victory by the Allied forces.

Keogh started the war as a pathologist attached to the 2/2 Australian General Hospital, stationed at Gaza and then Kantara, near the Suez Canal, but within a few years was the Director of Hygiene and Pathology for the whole Australian Army. While in the Middle East he investigated diseases such as dysentery, typhoid and malaria, and set up a blood transfusion service. Keogh was surrounded by a talented team of medical personnel, including his assistant Mavis Freeman, who was present as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). By war’s end she was a Captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps.

Freeman was a biochemist and bacteriologist – an accomplished scientist in her own right. She had worked closely with Macfarlane Burnet for over ten years at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. Perhaps her most notable achievement came in 1937, when she and Burnet succeeded in identifying the microbe responsible for Q fever, a disease found over most of the world. It was the first time that the cause of a human disease had been identified and isolated in Australia.

In the Middle East, Freeman made a particular study of the cause of ‘desert sores’, severe skin lesions that had hospitalised a considerable number of soldiers. It had been assumed that the sores were the result of vitamin deficiency, but Freeman showed that they were bacterial infections that could be prevented by a range of simple hygiene measures. At that time there was no Army issue soap!

With the onset of the Pacific War the 2/2 Australian General Hospital returned to Australia, and with it Keogh and Freeman. In the years that followed both scientists were involved in what was certainly the most important medical research undertaken by Australia in World War Two – the fight against malaria.

The danger of malaria was revealed in late 1942, when Australian forces were defending Milne Bay in New Guinea. In one week alone, 1,083 soldiers out of a 12,000 strong contingent were admitted to hospital with the disease. Such losses could not be allowed to continue. Keogh and others set about the establishment of a Medical Research Unit in Cairns, where antimalarial drugs were tested. Eventually the drug atrebin was shown to be effective, and prescribed for the armed forces. Freeman, meanwhile, was undertaking research into safe methods for blood transfusion in malarial regions. The combined scientific effort was successful, the number of cases of malaria dropped dramatically, and the Pacific campaign was saved from disaster.

The Pacific War ended with the horror of the atomic bomb, and it’s easy to forget that science was used in the war to save lives as well as to devise new means of killing. It’s ironic that this time of destruction accelerated medical research in a number of areas, including in the production of the ‘wonder drug’ penicillin. But, of course, no amount of research could restore life to the fallen.


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Tim Sherratt Written by:

I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.

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