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Monday, 12 November, 2007

A doctor in Flanders fields

A Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, penned the poem that has since become the anthem of Remembrance Day:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

After a stint in the military in the Boer War, Dr McCrae became a pathologist at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, performed autopsies at the Montreal General Hospital and taught pathology and conducted medical research at McGill University and the University of Vermont. He published "In Flanders fields" anonymously in 1915, but his identity became known before long. Veterans Affairs Canada has devoted to Dr McCrae's life. The National Post published two years ago.

from another (less famous) piece of Dr McCrae's writing -- this one, published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine in 1900, has a less catchy title: "NOTES UPON THE AGGLUTINATIONS OBTAINED BY INTRAPERITONEAL INSERTION OF CELLOIDIN CAPSULES CONTAINING BACILLI AND UPON A MODE OF PREPARING SUCH CAPSULES."

1. Capsules made as described above allow dialysis, when placed in the peritoneal cavity.
2. The normal tissues, unstimulated, do not possess the power of causing agglutination; they do not require to be stimulated by the presence of the bacterial bodies, but will produce their share of the agglutinins when acted upon by the bacillary products.
3. Agglutination follows the insertion, in the peritoneal cavity, of "capsuled" bacilli; it gradually increases in degree, and on the removal of the capsule containing the bacilli, begins to disappear.
4. Varieties of bacilli, related closely in morphology and cultural reactions, do not, as a rule, produce serums which inter-agglutinate.
Say what you will about "In Flanders fields" -- aesthetically and without the context of its time and place of composition, it's not much of a poem -- but you have to concede this much: what a difference 15 years can make.

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