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New National Library of Medicine Exhibit Highlights the Psychological Traumas -- "Shell Shock" -- of World War I

Within the first few months of the start of the First World War, British army physicians began to see a new and disturbing condition among returning soldiers. Symptoms of this nameless disorder included partial paralysis, convulsive movements, blindness, terrifying dreams and flashbacks, and amnesia. Physicians blamed it on the percussive effect of high explosives-but it soon became clear that the cause was not physical.

Instead it was a psychological disorder resulting from the horrors of this peculiar war, and it soon came to be known as "shell shock." Soldiers often lived in flooded, rat-infested trenches among the rotting corpses of their fellow soldiers with the sounds of exploding shells nearby and the constant threat of hand grenades being lobbed into their trench by the enemy. Often soldiers lived for days and weeks in these demoralizing conditions; to venture out to "no man's land"--the terrain between the warring sides--was to invite death.

The small exhibit shows the effects of shell shock, the conditions that provoked it, and the medical response. Poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen who were treated for shell shock (Owen was cured and returned to the front, only to be killed) and fiction from the 1920's to the 1990's in which shell shock is depicted are also featured. The exhibit uses World War I artifacts to suggest no man's land and a trench environment.

The exhibit also highlights the later manifestations of shell shock syndrome to the Vietnam War and after when the reaction to the extreme stress of war was labeled Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disorder now recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.

The National Library of Medicine, located at 8600 Rockville Pike is accessible from the Medical Center stop on the red line. The Exhibit is open from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday, except on holidays.