The Hoover Institution has acquired the papers of Major General Harry Lorenzo Gilchrist (1870–1943). Born in Waterloo, Iowa (also the birthplace of Lou Henry Hoover in 1874), Gilchrist graduated from the Medical Department of Western Reserve University (today's Case Western) in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. His military career, which spanned thirty-six years, began in 1898, when he joined the US Army as a contract surgeon. He continued as an assistant surgeon while fighting epidemics in the Philippines, Central America, and Cuba, all while pursuing his studies and graduating from the Army Medical School in 1903. He would rise to the rank of captain and then major in the Medical Corps in the years that followed.
In May 1917, just over a month after the United States entered the First World War, Gilchrist was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He took command of the US Army Base Hospital No. 4, also known as the Lakeside Unit, named after the hospital in Cleveland from which its personnel was drawn. Based at a British army hospital near Rouen, France, this unit was the first contingent of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) to be transported to Europe. Then, from December 1917 to December 1918, Gilchrist served as the medical director of the AEF Chemical Warfare Division, which entailed frequent visits to the front and allied hospitals.
After the Armistice, Herbert Hoover, then director-general of relief for the Supreme Economic Council, personally asked President Woodrow Wilson to detail Lt. Col. Gilchrist and a unit of soldiers to anti-typhus work in Poland, whose eastern borderlands were beginning to suffer the ravages of this lice-borne epidemic, compounded by hunger and miserable living conditions. Gilchrist and his men had their work cut out for them—the unsettled borders of Poland were especially porous in the east, as several million destitute refugees with many vulnerable children among them, who had fled to Russia ahead of the German offensive a few years earlier, began to filter back. Gilchrist and some five hundred volunteer soldiers established delousing stations and coordinated operations with the Polish Army and Ministry of Health as well as the American Red Cross, making use of virtually all of the AEF sanitary supplies remaining in Europe. These materials, sold to Poland by the US Liquidation Board, included: 27 mobile steam laundries; 17 motorized bath plants; hundreds of trucks, ambulances, and cars; tens of thousands of sheets, blankets, pillowcases, and towels; one hundred tons of soap; and even five hundred mules with harnesses and carts.
Interrupted by the Polish-Soviet War of 1920, the operation was continued by a somewhat smaller unit headed by Gilchrist until it was disbanded in January 1921. It is safe to say that the mission saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives and played an important role in establishing the fledgling health services of newly reborn Poland. In Gilchrist’s own words, “United States troops were never used for a better purpose.”
The acquired papers consist of materials on AEF delousing activities in France, correspondence and photographs relating to the anti-typhus mission in Poland (including a heartfelt letter of thanks from Chief of State Józef Piłsudski), articles written by Gilchrist on chemical warfare, and assorted letters and biographical materials from the latter part of his career. Though modest in size, this acquisition is a notable addition to the First World War–era holdings of the Hoover Institution Archives, especially as materials from this time grow increasingly scarce and fragile. The papers complement the European Technical Advisers records, 1918–1923, the American National Red Cross records, and the American Relief Administration records, among other collections dating from the period of the Institution's founding, a century ago.
After his mission to Poland ended, Gilchrist served as the chief of the US Army’s Medical Research Division in Washington, DC, and at its Chemical Warfare Service at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, advancing to the rank of colonel and then major general. His final command was as chief of the Chemical Warfare Service from 1929 until his retirement, in 1934. From that point he served as editor of the Military Surgeon until 1940. Harry Gilchrist passed away on December 26, 1943, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A letter in 1934 from then chief of staff Douglas MacArthur listed Gilchrist’s numerous awards, including the US Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Purple Heart, the French Legion of Honor, and the Polish Order of Polonia Restituta.
The noble memory of Harry L. Gilchrist’s humanitarian activities in wartime, as contained in his papers, brings to mind the words Herbert Hoover used to describe the mission of the Institution he founded: “From its records, to recall the voice of experience against the making of war, and by the study of these records and their publication, to recall man’s endeavors to make and preserve peace.” Gilchrist’s papers have found a home for generations to come.
Nicholas Siekierski is writing his dissertation on "Herbert Hoover and the American Relief Administration in Poland, 1919–1922." He began working at the Hoover Institution in 2001 and was the assistant archivist for Exhibits and Outreach for the Hoover Institution Library & Archives from 2009 to 2014, for which he was the curator for exhibits on topics including World War II, Chinese history, art, and democracy in Eastern Europe.