Oral Histories from the Archives: Ivan Brown on the 65th General Hospital

The Oral History Collection here at the Archives is one of our oldest andIvan Brown with movie camera, WWII most interesting collections. There are over 300 interviews with key figures in the Med Center’s history that date from 1955 to as recent as 2012. This post is the first in a series we are launching to highlight major subjects and individuals featured in this collection. As July 3 marked the 72 anniversary of Duke’s 65th General Hospital Unit receiving orders to report for duty at Fort Bragg, we wanted to begin our Oral History series with Dr. Ivan Brown, who served in the unit and played an integral role in preserving its memory.

Dr. Brown began his career at Duke as a student, and after graduating with his MD in 1940, joined the 65th General Hospital Unit in 1943. Though he went on to accomplish much during his career after the war, he identified throughout his life as the historian for the 65th. In fact, it is Ivan Brown who gathered together the materials that form the Sixty-Fifth General Hospital Collection here at the Archives. His work documenting the 65th actually began during the war, filming the unit with a home movie camera. The picture on the right, scanned from a scrapbook in the 65th General Hospital Collection, shows Ivan Brown using his movie camera.

In his 2002 interview with Suzanne Porter, Brown talks about his time with the 65th. The 65th is famous for the high level of care its doctors and nurses provided to troops in the Eastern Theater of Operations, and Brown recalls that “one of the 65th’s greatest achievements was its amazingly low mortality rate of .41 percent in its treatment of fresh battle casualties received from the air force for their initial care.” The 65th was also unique in the number of soldiers treated during the war. Brown says, “we had a continuous heavy duty every day. Ours was continuous, whereas the other hospitals, they’d have maybe casualties for two weeks, and then they wouldn’t have any for another three or four weeks.” In all, the 65th treated over 17,000 patients from 1943-1945.

FLAK, by Frank BeresfordAnother highlight of this interview is Dr. Brown’s discussion of the origin of a series of paintings done by the artist Frank Beresford depicting the 65th. During the war, Beresford became a patient of the 65th while serving as a correspondent for the Royal Air Force. While recuperating, he did a series of paintings depicting the activities and work of the doctors and nurses. Brown recalls Beresford working on the painting, FLAK (pictured left), saying “…he stood outside the operating room—our operating rooms were pretty crude; they were in Nissen huts. He stood outside the door—I remember it so well—looking through this little window into the operating room, and sketched this painting…” He goes on to explain how the patient was a victim of crossfire, the was dark because the camp was under strict blackout, and he names each person present for the operation: Major Jacobs (head of orthopedics), Clarence Gardner (chief of surgery), Gauthier (assistant), Liz Goodman (anesthetist) and Suzy Alexander (nurse).

Narrative histories and biographies alone do not provide the nuanced, personal accounts revealed through oral histories. It is Ivan Brown’s memories of and connection with others that dominates this interview. You can learn more about Ivan Brown on our website or contact us for access to this and other interviews. Curious about who else is featured in this collection? Browse the Oral History Collection finding aid to find out, or just stay tuned to our blog for future interview highlights!