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World War II Physicians and the Healing Power of Art

Harry Agress, Jr., MDAs a retired radiologist, Harry Agress Jr., MD, pursued his passion for photography and began donating his nature-inspired art to hospitals around the country as a way to provide solace and calm for physicians and nurses. In 2021, Dr. Agress decided to donate a special piece to Barnes-Jewish Hospital as a tribute to his father, Harry Agress Sr., MD, who was a 1932 graduate of Washington University School of Medicine and had practiced medicine at the former Barnes and Jewish Hospitals.

This generous gift of photography serendipitously opened the door to a colorful, remarkable history of the role physicians and nurses from Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine played in World War II—including Dr. Agress Sr.

It also led to a special presentation called “The Brave and the Bold: The 21st General Hospital Legacy During World War II” at Barnes-Jewish Hospital March 5, 2024. Nearly 100 people attended the presentation hosted by The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Guests included hospital employee veterans, donors, hospital leaders, community members, and the Agress family and friends who came from Boston and New York.

Featured speakers included Harry Agress Jr. and Philip Skroska, visual and graphic archivist at the Bernard Becker Medical Library at Washington University School of Medicine, who shared fascinating photos, facts and anecdotes about the 21st General Hospital. You can view highlights from the event below, or watch the whole program here.


Never Forget

The birth of the presentation began with an incidental Google search by Dr. Agress’s sister, Nancy Agress Brodsky. She discovered an online audio recording in Washington University’s Becker Library of Dr. Agress Sr. recounting his experience as a physician soldier in World War II. It was a surprise to the Agress siblings.Nancy Agress Brodsky and Harry Agress, Jr.

 “Our dad was very quiet about this sort of thing and never discussed his experience,” Dr. Agress says. “As I started digging in (to the history), a whole new world opened up. This medical group was exceptional and turned into one of the largest military medical units and one of the most decorated.”

Dr. Agress says his research efforts and the presentation he gave are a tribute to those who served in the 21st General Hospital. “We have to remember what they stood for. They were heroic and had amazing principles about what was important in life. We should never ever forget this group very appropriately called the Greatest Generation.”

Unlikely Soldiers

During World War I, physicians from the former Barnes Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine formed a medical unit called Base Hospital 21. It was the first American military hospital to serve in France. After the unit returned to the U.S. in 1919, Base Hospital 21 was designated a U.S. Army Reserve Officer Corps unit.

When the U.S. entered World War II, the medical reserve unit was called to service again as the 21st General Hospital. Activated Jan. 12, 1942, the medical unit included more than two dozen physicians from Barnes Hospital, as well as nearly 60 nurses from the hospital and the former Washington University School of Nursing (closed in 1969), led by Lt. Lucille Spalding, a masters-prepared nurse.

On Oct. 20, 1942, the S.S. Mariposa left New York Harbor carrying the medical unit and other combat troops to their first destination in England. The ship dodged German submarines across the Atlantic through a perilous journey.

This remarkable U.S. Army medical reserve unit staffed the 21st General Hospital as a mobile hospital that served in three theaters—North Africa, Italy and France—for the next three years. The general hospital treated wounded Allied troops and, at one point, about 200 German and Italian prisoners of war.

Diplomatic Healers

The 21st General Hospital was a key part of “Operation Torch,” an Allied offensive to establish control of North Africa. In Algeria, the medical team had to be diplomats as well as healers to win the trust and cooperation of local leaders. The unit faced daily challenges, from flash flooding that swept away clothes and gear to poor sanitation to critical medical supply shortages. In the early days of surgeries in the 21st General Hospital, the medical unit had to create makeshift instruments until more Allied convoys could arrive with supplies.

The medical team even converted a hotel into a hospital and built temporary buildings to house additional wards. At its largest, the 21st General Hospital had more than 4,000 beds in Algeria and treated nearly 21,000 patients in one year.

After North Africa, the medical unit transferred to Italy near fierce fighting that resulted in thousands of wounded soldiers—all treated at 21st General Hospital. Before the unit relocated to France, they had cared for 15,000 patients.

In France, the 21st General Hospital renovated a psychiatric hospital where they treated more than 3,000 patients each day. Their bravery and medical innovation led the 21st General Hospital to be recognized as one of the finest medical units and the most decorated in the European theater.

Healing Through Art and Entertainment

As the war wore on, some of the physician leaders turned to arts and entertainment to boost morale. From North Africa to Italy, the unit basked in the beauty of their surroundings. They held Saturday night dances on the hotel rooftop that was their improvised hospital. In Naples, actors and musicians performed at a local theater to distract soldiers from the horrors of war.

One of the physician leaders, Lt. Col. Harry Agress Sr., MD, immersed himself in the art around him. As chief of the laboratory service for the 21st General Hospital, his lab was an old wine shop with walls covered in magnificent murals made of ceramic tile. Beautiful walled gardens also served as the backdrop for dinner parties Dr. Agress hosted to lift spirits.

Dr. Agress also brought his own talents to entertain his fellow officers. He often played the violin alongside other unit musicians “that would make for much gaiety,” he said.

One day, a revered violinist, Jascha Heifetz, made a surprise appearance in Naples. Dr. Agress, a violin aficionado, knew the world-famous Heifetz was a rare find in the middle of the war so he asked Heifetz to perform. Medical units from all over the area packed the local theater to hear him play. Today, Heifetz is often referred to as “God’s Fiddler” and is considered the greatest violinist of all time.

"Music was in our soul around the hospital always," Dr. Agress said.

Katie Henderson, MD, Nancy Agress Brodsky, Ronnie Agress, Harry Agress Jr., Emily Agress, John Lynch, MDThe Alliance of Art and Health Care

The stunning nature-inspired artwork donated by Dr. Agress Jr. is now displayed in the physician lounge at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. It’s a fitting tribute to Dr. Agress’s father who recognized the healing power of art and music during the most challenging times. It’s a power that lives on—no matter what the era.

“We’re grateful for Harry’s inspiring artwork that clearly demonstrates the impact nature and art have on healing and reducing stress,” says Mary Hendricks, executive director of philanthropy at The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “Through our Arts + Healing program, we continue to embed the arts as an integral part of healing and resiliency-building at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. The program has become a haven of hope and comfort for patients, families and hospital staff.”

The Arts + Healthcare program began in 2007, funded by donors to the Foundation. The program helps over 6,000 patients, family members, and hospital team members each year to find strength and renewal through music, poetry or visual art.


Some of the Arts + Healthcare program offerings include:

  • Live music performances

  • Art exhibitions

  • An art room for projects including drawing, painting, journaling, knitting and more

  • A mobile art cart to provide support and respite to hospital staff

  • Creative workshops for staff and caregivers to build resiliency

Give Now & Support Arts + Healthcare

If you have questions about the Arts+ Healthcare program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, please contact [email protected].

Written by Joyce Romine

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