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Archie Cochrane: Prisoner of War Experiences

From 1 June, 1941 Archie Cochrane spent four years as a prisoner of war at several camps in Crete, Greece and Germany. His experiences as camp Medical Officer at Salonica, Hildburghausen, Elsterhorst and Wittenberg-am-Elbe were profoundly to affect and form his later beliefs on patient care and medical treatment.

During his time as a prisoner, Archie wrote several poems which described his feelings about the terrible conditions forced on him and his fellow prisoners in the camps. The poems were later to be collectively published as Poems from Prison (Cochrane A.L. [Chepstow] C.P. Healey, 1974).

Poems from Prison Front Cover (Cochrane Archive)

Archie's treatment of his fellow prisoners was based on the experimental work of the 18th century naval surgeon James Lind (1716-1794).

James Lind (below) was successful in helping to eliminate scurvy from sailors serving in the Royal Navy and Archie called him "my medical hero" in Sickness in Salonica: my first, worst, and most successful clinical trial (Cochrane A.L. BMJ 1984; 289: 1726-7).

Archie wrote: " . . . a prisoner evacuated from Athens handed into the hospital a packet of vitamin C pills and a tin of Marmite, a spread for flavouring sandwiches, which I knew to be made from yeast, and would thus contain B vitamins."

James Lind and Frontispiece of 'Treatise on the Scurvy' (Cochrane Archive)Archie Cochrane Portrait by Basidio

Within the archive catalogue - from Archie's typewritten lecture notes - when reflecting on the extreme conditions he was forced to live and work in, he maintained his sense of humour: " . . . when I became a Prisoner of War on the island of Crete . . . the main reason for my capture was my inability to swim to Egypt . . .".

Archie also noted a fellow prisoner as saying: "It was bad enough being a Prisoner of War, but having Cochrane as your doctor was a bit too much."

He wrote later, in his autobiography One Man’s Medicine*, of his experiences in the camps. Of his period at the Elsterhorst camp he recorded:

"In spite of all my troubles there I had learnt a lot about myself. I was satisfied that I had really cared for my patients as well as I could have in the circumstances. I had found it emotionally satisfying and distressing at the same time. I knew my patients so well that I was miserable when they died. I also found 'caring' intellectually unsatisfactory.

What I decided I could not continue doing was making decisions about intervening (for example, pneumothorax and thoracoplasty**) when I had no idea whether I was doing more harm than good. I remember reading a pamphlet (I think from the BMA) extolling the advantages of the freedom of British doctors to do whatever they thought best for their patients. I found it ridiculous. I would willingly have sacrificed all my medical freedom for some hard evidence telling me when to do a pneumothorax. I feared I had shortened some lives by doing it on the wrong cases . . . I had not enjoyed myself at Elsterhorst, but I was a wiser man."

Prisoners of War Exercising (Cochrane Archive)

In 1945 Archie Cochrane received the MBE in recognition of his 'Gallant and Distinguished' services in the war as a doctor working in the prison camps.

*Cochrane A. L., Blythe M. One Man’s Medicine: an Autobiography of Professor Archie Cochrane. London: British Medical Journal, 1989.

**Note: An established surgical procedure to induce temporary, or permanent, collapse (and enforced relaxation) of the lung.