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med students Bergen hero ;

Medical students who saved lives at Bergen-Belsen

At the end of last year, President & Principal of King’s Professor Ed Byrne unveiled a plaque in memory of a remarkable group of medical students from King’s who provided life-saving treatment to survivors of the liberated concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in 1945. The students’ tireless work has been credited in reducing the death rate at the camp from over 500 a day at liberation to less than 50 a day by mid-May 1945.

The plaque unveiling ceremony was attended by three children of the students and many members of the King’s medical alumni in the colonnade of Guy’s campus where the plaque is on display for all to see. The plaque was sponsored by the Guys John Fry Medical Alumni group and the ceremony followed a talk on the medical students at Belsen

Medical students volunteer

In April 1945, the Red Cross and British Army called for 100 medical students from London hospitals to volunteer to aid starving Dutch children who had been liberated from German occupation. Many of the volunteering students were in their final years of medical School including, 12 from Guy’s Hospital, 12 from St Thomas’ and 9 from King’s College Hospital (now collectively known as King’s GKT medical School).

While these volunteers were getting ready to head to the Netherlands, British troops liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and needed urgent help. So, the medical students were diverted to Germany where they provided life-saving support during May April 1945. 

Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp

Bergen-Belsen was a Nazi concentration camp established in 1943. Overcrowding, severe lack of food and poor sanitary conditions caused outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, and dysentery, and led to the deaths of more than 50,000 people mainly in the first few months of 1945, shortly before and after the liberation.

The camp was liberated on 15 April 1945 by the British Army where the soldiers discovered approximately 60,000 malnourished and starving prisoners and over 10,000 dead.

One of the students John Kilby from St Thomas’ wrote to his mother and described what he saw “Belsen is a place beyond all imagination, it was originated for death by slow starvation. One’s first job is to find the dead and get them removed. Our job is keeping alive those in the huts until they can be got to the hospitals.”



Medical Students Arrive

When the students arrived at the camp their first task was to take care of the extremely malnourished, sick and starving prisoners. Each student was assigned a hut or two each where they had to care for and tend to the occupants. Typhus and Tuberculosis (TB) were rife and food was limited. The prisoners had no food or water for a week.

There were many challenges that faced the students and the Royal Army Medical Corps in addition to the squalor. The, electricity and water had been cut off by the SS when they left the camp and most of the prisoners could not speak English. Many died if they were given food which was too rich, or not enough.

The students developed one of the huts as a hospital hut to look after the worst cases and within a week, the Army had built a makeshift hospital in the Panzer training school next to the camp that could house 7000 beds. There was a significant reduction in the death rate. When each hut was emptied by patients being treated in hospital, they were burned down.

Student Michael Davys from Guys letter home describes “scenes of indescribable horror, filth, squalor and disease… they have been dying of starvation and typhus at about the rate of 500-600 a day… I have in my hut 300 patients. It is the size of a stable – about 100 are very ill but able to walk or crawl. 200 are lying huddled, next to the dead… I am very tired. We work a very hard 12-hour day. The scenes I have seen here will be vivid memories for the rest of my life.

Dr John Reynolds, father of Dr Anne Stephenson, clinical Director of Community Education and Deputy-Dean of Student Affairs for the GKT School of Medical Education, was one of the students who volunteered at Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

Dr Stephenson kindly provided the following quote from her father’s records of his time at the camp ‘‘Inside the huts lay people in all stages of disease. Many were dead. Practically all were emaciated, many having starvation oedema … Sanitary arrangements were practically absent and nearly all the internees had violent colic and diarrhoea … the state of the huts may be imagined...Work in Camp 1 preceded apace...The death rate...dropped fairly quickly...this was mainly due to organisation of feeding arrangements. The morale of the internees became very high and more and more became able to fend for themselves, became stronger in mind and body and regained some sort of decency”.

Returning home and beyond

After a month, the students were relieved by medical students from Belgium and returned to England and to medical school. Seven students had contracted Typhus and two students from Guy’s contracted TB and needed to take a year off to recover.

Students then went on to complete their medical degrees and many become renowned medical professionals. Of the 33 medical students, at least 10 became consultants, one student, Sir James Gowans was knighted for his contribution to immunology and another, Dr John Hayward, founded the internationally renowned breast unit at Guys.

President & Principal at King’s Professor Ed Byrne AC commented:The legacy these students have created by showing such remarkable compassion is part of the philosophy of service which underpins the GKT School of Medical Education. The time they spent at the camp tested both their medical skills and their personal stamina to an unimaginable degree. The camp at Belsen presented a humanitarian disaster of colossal proportions. The medical students made a huge contribution which deserves to be remembered by all of us.”

In this story

Edward Byrne

Edward Byrne

Former President & Principal of King's College London

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