Tag Archives: Tropical Medicine

FAR EAST POWs RETURNING HOME – WARNINGS OF FORTHCOMING HEALTH PROBLEMS

By Professor Geoff Gill, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

During their  three and a half years of imprisonment in the Far East, POWS suffered overwork and maltreatment, but also undernutrition and exposure to various tropical diseases. This frequently led to attacks of malaria and dysentery, as well as various  syndromes of vitamin deficiency. Tropical ulcers and cholera outbreaks also occurred – particularly in the jungle camps of the Thai-Burma Railway.

In September 1945, Professor Brian Maegraith of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM)  addressed a group of families in Blackpool, whose relatives were ex-POWs on their way home. Maegraith warned of likely relapses of malaria and dysentery, as well as psychological problems. Contrary to standard advice, he told the families to “let them talk” of their experiences. Below is a photo of this meeting published in the local Blackpool newspaper.

A letter appeared in the British Medical Journal in December 1945,  drawing attention to the inadequacy of medical screening of returning Far East POWs.  Dr F E Cayley (himself a former Burma Railway POW doctor) pointed out the high rates of intestinal parasitic infections amongst these men (notably amoebiasis – the main cause of dysentery relapses), and recommended routine microscopic examination of stool specimens.  Such examinations were almost never done, the only relevant precautionary measure being an information leaflet given to some returning Far East POWs, the text of which is shown below –

  INFORMATION LEAFLET FOR THE MEDICAL ATTENDANTS OF A REPATRIATED PRISONER   Some diseases, which do not normally occur in this country, are present in the countries in which you have been serving. It is essential for the protection of yourself, your family and your friends and to prevent any possible epidemics of disease in this country that any illness from which you may suffer while you are on leave, or after your release from the Services, should receive immediate medical attention.   Notes for Medical Practitioners The following diseases commonly occur in the Far East POW   – Malaria, Dysentery (including Amoebic Dysentery), nutritional deficiencies, skin diseases and worm infestations.  

Failure of adequate medical screening and follow-up of returning Far East POWs was a lost opportunity which was to have lasting effects. Post-war, over 4,000 of these men were seen at the military hospital Queen Mary’s Roehampton (1945 to 1967), and a similar number at the Liverpool  School of Tropical Medicine (1945 to 1999). There were early relapses of malaria and dysentery, increased tuberculosis risk, chronic intestinal worm infections, and permanent neurological damage due to vitamin B deficiency. Perhaps most importantly, over one-third suffered significant psychiatric illness, later recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Thankfully, there were some benefits from  this unfortunate episode. The Liverpool School conducted a major research project on the long term  health problems of ex-Far East POWs, leading to a series of papers in the medical literature. These have significantly contributed to the knowledge-base and clinical practice of both tropical and military medicine. As  numbers of ex-POWs declined, the LSTM FEPOW Project has moved to recording the oral, art and medical history of the POW experience. This has resulted in the books Captive Memories (M Parkes & G Gill, 2015),  Burma Railway Medicine  (G Gill & M Parkes, 2017), and Captive Artists (M Parkes, G Gill & J Wood, 2019) – see the captivememories.org.uk  website for more details.

New Book – Captive Memories

Captive_MemoriesCaptive Memories

By

Meg Parkes and Geoff Gill

Captive Memories, a new book by LSTM’s Honorary Fellow Meg Parkes and Emeritus Professor Geoff Gill, will launch next week at an event at the Liverpool Medical Institution. The book charts the history of LSTM’s longest running collaborative project involving Far East Prisoners of War (FEPOW).

At the end of WWII, even before the men returned to the UK following the end of hostilities with Japan, LSTM’s then Dean, Brian Maegraith addressed a large group of their families in Blackpool in early September 1945, answering questions about the kind of tropical diseases and infections that the men may return with. On their arrival back in the UK, the men went their own way, but in early post war months many, especially those living in the north if England, found their way to LSTM, beginning the unique scientific and medical collaboration which is now in its seventh decade.

From 1967 onwards LSTM became the primary centre to carry out Tropical Disease Investigations (TDIs) for FEPOW. By this time hundreds of men had been under the care of LSTM and in the mid-1970s Dr Geoff Gill became involved in their care until the last TDI was carried out in 1999. The relationship with LSTM did not end there and out of this enduring relationship came knowledge which improved the diagnosis and treatment of some tropical diseases.

In 2007 Meg began a social history project and recorded interviews with 66 former FEPOW as well as some of their wives and widows, the culmination of which is Captive Memories. It charts the history of these survivors, remembered six decades after their release. It is a touching and personal account of their captivity, survival and the struggles, both physical and psychological, faced on their release. Each person interviewed is quoted in the book which provides a fascinating history underpinned with eyewitness accounts and personal perspectives.

Price: £12.99
Imprint: Palatine Books
ISBN: 978-1-910837-00-9
Binding: paperback
Extent: 272 pages
Format: 243 x 169mm, with flaps
Illustrations: c40
BIC code: HBWQ
Category: history/war/medicine Audience: general and academic
Pub date: 28 May 2015
Author: Meg Parkes & Geoff Gill