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'The Winter Soldier' Gives New Perspective Of Medicine During World War I

Image courtesy of Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek
Surgical team, Field Hospital, Ostrozec, September, 1915

Editor's note: This piece was originally published Nov. 12, 2018.

Veterans Day is still celebrated in other parts of the world as Armistice Day, which originally marked the cessation of the first world war. Most of what we read and see about that war are from battles on farm fields in places like France and Belgium. But the war actually started well to the east, and much of the fighting was fought in mountainous terrain in Austro-Hungary, Russia, and Poland.

Credit Pan Macmillan
Pan Macmillan

"It’s a much more open landscape, there’s much less entrenchment. Men are on horseback. And many of the armies are using not only modern warfare but more traditional kinds of warfare — lances, sabers," explains author Daniel Mason, whose latest novel is set during World War I.

The Winter Soldier tells the story of Lucius, a medical student in Austria whose studies are interrupted by the war, and he is pressed into service as the physician at a field hospital, where suffering is frequent and plentiful.

Mason himself has a medical degree — in addition to his work as a novelist, he is an assistant professor of psychiatry and teaches medical humanities at Stanford University. 

Mason says he had just graduated medical school in 2004 when he became interested in psychiatry. While researching work done at mental asylums in the 1920s, Mason was led to look into what it would have been like to serve in World War I.

"I came across these anecdotes of how medical students with really no clinical training at all were conscripted into the army because the Austro-Hungary army was so ill-prepared," Mason recalls. "Since I had just finished medical school myself, it was astounding to imagine that someone in a similar position would suddenly find themselves with such responsibilities."

Mason joined Lake Effect's Mitch Teich on a recent trip to Milwaukee to see family and for an event at Boswell Book Company: