The Mind and Stomach at War: Stress, British Society and the Second World War’

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    Abstract

    Medical professionals are often obliged to engage with unforeseen problems during times of conflict. These typically emerge and develop unpredictably, giving rise to spates of internal biological disorders that may affect specific body areas or induce problematic forms of psychological behaviour. The phenomena of shell shock and Gulf War syndrome are prominent historical examples of these, both being conditions not usually witnessed during peacetime. However, conflict can also generate changes in pre-existing medical complaints. In this article, I suggest that Britain experienced unexpected changes in abdominal problems during the Second World War. An alarming increase in gastric ailments, most notably dyspepsia, peptic ulcer and duodenal ulcer, was noted from the start of the conflict. There was rising concern in both the government and the medical profession about the anticipated drain on national manpower and military efficiency. I shall relate this to the wider process of the incorporation of psychological medicine into the treatment of conditions of the gastrointestinal tract.More generally, this paper expands upon suggestions that there exists a wide range of chronic disorders that are of potential importance to historians of medicine. In 1979, G H Brieger complained that the significance of the problematic condition of dyspepsia, or indigestion, had been greatly underrated despite the usefulness that a careful study of it would hold for the enhancement of historical understandings of medical theory and practice. However, little else was published on the history of stomach problems until eighteen years later when William F Bynum argued a similar case in Gastroenterology in Britain (1997), an edited volume compiled with the specific aim of outlining some of the area’s main individuals, issues and technical developments. He anticipated that future scholars would expand upon what he considered to be a highly significant, if complex, theme. However, to date, such research has been limited. This article therefore provides one example of how the many experiences of the stomach and its illnesses have occupied prominent positions in society, culture and medicine by locating this organ at the centre of both medical and popular wartime imagination.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)95-110
    JournalMedical History
    Volume54:1
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2010

    Keywords

    • history of stomach
    • Psychology in Second World War
    • history of peptic ulcer
    • history of stress

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