April 25th 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. HPS and its network of pharmacies would like to commemorate the role of pharmacists in World War I (WWI) and has invited guest author, Mia Bell, to provide an account of her family’s involvement.

Not all of the servicemen who went away to the First World War were fresh-faced young men of 19 and 20 years of age.

My great grandfather Percival Dudley Belcher, known to his family as “P.D.”, was at the time of enlistment in March 1917 some 37 years old with a wife and young daughter, and owned a pharmacy in North Sydney. His occupation was listed as “Registered Chemist” and his rank was Staff Sergeant Dispenser in the Australian Army Medical Corp.

Records from the Nominal Roll held by the Australian War Memorial list 147 Australian Staff Sergeant Dispensers, otherwise known as Pharmacists or Registered Chemists, serving in their professions as part of the war effort overseas.

The role of pharmacists in WWI is little documented, but was undoubtedly a valuable contribution and greatly assisted the rapid medical advancement of this time.

The Nominal Roll of Staff Sergeant Dispensers lists all of the Australian pharmacists who served in the Great War, beginning with the first pharmacist Edmund Bull, age 22, from Cheltenham NSW, who embarked on the HMAT Ballarat on 16th February 1916. All 147 pharmacists are listed, right through to Alwin Curwood, who at age 26 from Grafton NSW, was the last of the Australian Staff Sergeant Dispensers, and embarked on the SS Carpentaria on 7th November 1918, just prior to armistice and was subsequently recalled. The ages of the pharmacists in the unit of Staff Sergeant Dispensers range from 22 to 50, variously listed as Chemists or Registered Chemists (with one Labourers Chemist). Each record includes the chemist’s marital status, religion, next of kin, and the ship on which they departed for war. All were paid at a daily rate of 11 shillings. From this we build a picture of professional men, many married, sailing off to war at a rate of one pharmacist on each ship; until we come to HMAT Persic, which accommodated only medical personnel, and included 30 pharmacists.

Dispensaries sat within field hospitals dispensing what we would now consider basic medical treatments (in a world pre-antibiotics) however fulfilling a vital role in the treatment of wounded soldiers. Common injuries were bullet wounds, gassing, shell shock, and epidemics of cholera. The military hospitals in India were less likely to receive wounded from the battle front but rather dealt with virulent outbreaks of malaria, heat exhaustion, dysentery, lice and venereal disease as well as mental illness caused by combat. Chemists were also responsible for securing water sanitation.

In the years from 1916 to 1918, roughly one third of all deaths in the Australian Light Horse Brigade were due to disease rather than battle casualties. Primitive sanitation and a poor diet contributed to a constant battle against cholera, dysentery and lice, but the greatest challenge came from malaria and influenza. Malaria often led to a secondary infection which would be the actual cause of death. Troop numbers were so depleted by malaria and influenza that treatment and prevention became a real focus. The large number of malarial cases led to the development of a malarial prevention plan consisting of a mobile unit travelling behind the Light Horse Brigade mounted troops, to facilitate prevention measures, and quickly diagnose and treat malarial fever. The main treatment was quinine, which was considered too unpalatable to the troops to administer in a preventative dose.

There was a similar interest in the diagnosis for influenza, for which the treatment was mainly nursing care and hospital rest. The influenza epidemic greatly affected medical personnel who came into constant contact with the disease. The symptoms of malaria and influenza often presented in a similar way, and so medical research focused on the identification and diagnosis of the two illnesses. The vital importance of having healthy troops ready for active service drove this focus on accurate diagnosis, disease prevention and effective treatment.

The services of the pharmacists who served Australia in WWI were integral not only to the health of the Australian Troops, but also to the advancements that have progressed pharmacy and health care to where it is today.

Percival Dudley Belcher (1880 – 1955)

Born in 1880 in rural South Australia, P.D. Belcher qualified in Pharmacy at the Adelaide University in 1900. He was a relief pharmacist in Port Pirie, South Australia, where he met and married Eunice Williams in 1905. In 1915 he owned the pharmacy at 121 Miller Street, North Sydney, which was unique in having an 11:00pm closing time.

P.D. sold up his pharmacy and enlisted in Sydney in March 1917, and by August of that year embarked on the HMAT Persic from Melbourne, bound for India. A large contingent of medical staff including 30 Staff Sergeant Dispensers travelled together on the Persic.

P.D was stationed in Deolali, India, in 1917. Deolali was the site of a British Army camp and hospital, located some 100 miles north east of Mumbai. Wounded troops were treated in India rather than being shipped back to England where it might affect morale. Deolali is the source of the English slang term “to go doolally” (mad or insane) and referred to the madness of men waiting for transport back to Britain after finishing their tour of duty.

On his return from war in 1919, P.D. was discharged at his place of enlistment, Sydney. However his family had spent the war years in Adelaide and P.D., now aged 39, was desperate to be reunited with his wife Eunice and daughter Beth, now nine. The State borders had been closed due to the worldwide influenza epidemic. P.D. got as far as Broken Hill, and then smuggled himself over the border in a Cobb & Co coach.

During 1943-44, P.D. was President of the Pharmacy Society. Amongst some of the priceless original manuscripts of P.D. Belcher is a book of his own compounding recipes. In those days the recipes were personal to each pharmacist and closely guarded; however we can assume that during the war effort there was collaboration between chemists. One lasting relic of his war service is P.D’s recipe for curry powder (pictured below).

Pictured: Compounding recipe for curry powder, from the personal collection of compounding recipes of Percival Dudley Belcher, with faint annotations by William ‘Bill’ Carter.