Douglas Jolly: New Zealand surgeon who pioneered battlefield medicine

Post date: 04/06/2020

David Lowe and Mark Derby write about Douglas Jolly, the New Zealand surgeon who served in the International Brigades. They explain why he went to Spain and recognise his contribution to the progress of battlefield surgery as a discipline. A version of this article was published in ¡No Pasarán! 2-2020.

On 28 May the IBMT and Marx Memorial Library hosted an online talk by David Lowe on Jolly, which can be viewed here.

Lowe is an intensive care specialist from Sydney, Australia and Derby is a New Zealand historian. They are currently working on a biography of Jolly. You can assist their research by helping them identify individuals photographed with Jolly here.


Page from Jolly’s Spanish Republican Army passbook (Photo: Bidda Jones).

Many years after working as a nurse with Spain’s Republican Army medical services, Aurora Fernández clearly recalled the outstanding qualities of a young surgeon from New Zealand. Doug Jolly, she said, ‘does honour to his name – a man more “jolly” it would be difficult to find. I remember once, waiting for an order to leave for the front, all of us nervous and tense, fearful that planes would arrive… Dr Jolly began to tell jokes and seeing that the Spaniards did not understand him, began to dance and sing in the style of the Maoris and he inspired the group of spectators and all were smiling and tension went down.’ 

Today, with much of the world locked down to control the spread of a deadly virus, it is timely to recall the work of this dedicated physician, who developed innovative techniques for treating trauma injuries during the civil war, and never wavered from the principles of Christian socialism which first sent him to Spain. 

Jolly was aged 32 and studying in London for qualifications in surgery when the civil war broke out. He belonged to the Christian left, a circle that included Rev Donald Grant and his wife Irene (whom he had first met as a medical student in New Zealand), the moral philosopher John Macmurray, and the Austrian-born economist Karl Polanyi. To join the second team of volunteers organised by the Spanish Medical Aid Committee meant abandoning his surgical studies just before the final exam, yet he seems to have done so without hesitation. 

In December 1936, Jolly arrived at the International Brigades headquarters at Albacete bearing a personal letter of introduction from British Communist Party head Harry Pollitt: ‘This comrade is not a member of the Communist Party, but is a very warm sympathiser with the cause of the Spanish Government, and has been highly recommended to us.’ 

Soon afterwards Jolly was spotted at a café by Tom Wintringham, later the commander of the International Brigades’ British Battalion. The New Zealander appeared to be ‘thoroughly lost, having come out on his own from London with a minimum of papers and less knowledge of foreign languages than even an Englishman of his sort can usually muster.’ The two men soon became friends, and Wintringham later came to appreciate Jolly’s surgical skills. ‘I have to thank him (and a clean bullet) for much the neatest among my scars.’ 

That winter the Madrid front was under heavy attack from Nationalist forces trying to cut its only road link to Valencia. With the rank of lieutenant, and heading a surgical unit comprising seven nationalities, Jolly established a mobile field hospital just behind the front line. For the next two years his team was sent wherever the fighting was most intense, ‘to Andalusia in the South with its semi-tropical heat, away to Upper Aragon with its snow covered mountains and finally taking part in the government offensive which involved the crossing of the Ebro from Catalonia into Aragon in July 1938.’ 

Jolly deeply admired the local people he met, such as ‘the peasants with their strange carts drawn by long strings of mules and donkeys,’ who brought food and firewood that was often as vital to his work as anaesthetic. ‘It was amazing also to see the people in the towns and cities with their overriding contempt for falling bombs. In the early days they scorned to take shelter. One has to go to Spain’s national sport in the bull-ring to find the analogy of this seeming indifference to death.’

Operating in high temperature, left to right: unknown US doctor, Hungarian nurse Anne-Marie Basch and Jolly.

One of his nurses, Hungarian-born AnnaMarie Basch, found that Jolly ‘did not belong to any political party, he was simply a doctor who was anti-fascist through extraordinarily high ethics. That is what brought him to Spain.’ Those ethics compelled him to treat his patients without regard for their military affiliation. He operated on Franco’s Moorish troops in Madrid, and Italian fascists in Guadalajara. 

This indiscriminate approach in the face of overwhelming demands for medical care provoked outrage from other doctors, such as the Czech Frantisek Kriegel. 

He saw that Jolly had developed a novel method of triage, numbering each patient in order of urgency, and that the No.1 label had been given to a Nationalist prisoner. Kriegel ordered Jolly to treat one of the many wounded Republicans first. Jolly replied: ‘I refuse, and if you insist I’m going home tomorrow...the reasons that brought me here are the same reasons which will make me operate on that prisoner first, because he is in the most need of salvation.’ Kriegel conceded, and apologised the next day. 

Over two frenetic years Jolly performed thousands of operations, winning deep respect for his professional skills, his good humour and his courage under fire. Nurse administrator Gusti Jirku remembers driving with him towards a newly captured village in the Guaderrama, when four Junker fighter bombers appeared. A bomb landed thirty yards behind their car. ‘“What lousy shots”, Mr Jolly said, without turning his head.’ Arriving at their new field hospital, he performed a stomach operation with bombs falling 50 yards away. ‘Mr Jolly worked on in complete silence and with perfectly steady hands, while the Czech doctor assisted and Anne-Marie [Basch] passed instruments with the precision of a machine. But she was no machine; she treated every patient like her own son.’ 

Jolly and his ever-changing team set up field hospitals in abandoned farm houses, tents, railway carriages, tunnels, and eventually a large natural cave – wherever they could conceal their patients from Franco’s bombers. On the banks of the Ebro river in 1938, the British nursing administrator Nan Green classified the day’s casualties according to type of wound, and the weapon that caused it. She then made handcoloured graphs to show which medical supplies were needed, and priorities for treatment. This system proved so effective that Jolly revived it in the hospitals he ran during the Second World War.

The Republican Army’s hard-pressed but resourceful medical services pioneered profound and long-lasting clinical innovations, including the first widespread use of blood banks for transfusions. ‘The blood was delivered daily to the field hospitals,’ Jolly later recalled, ‘in special vans equipped with refrigerators run by small petrol motors (rather like a milk delivery service)…This is the first time that conserved blood had been used on a large scale.’ He noted that this development would eventually transform peace-time trauma medicine. 

Following the disbanding of the International Brigades in late 1938, Doug Jolly returned to Britain but continued to work on behalf of Republican Spain. During 1939 he addressed more than 60 public meetings in Britain and in France, urging support for former colleagues such as Kriegel whose home countries were now under Nazi control and who therefore faced imprisonment or worse if they were repatriated. 

He also drew on his frontline experience to warn British leaders of the vital need to prepare for an entirely new form of warfare. The British Medical Journal reports him saying that ‘The character of war had changed by reason of mass attack by aeroplane. The medical officer could no longer sit behind the lines and await his cases.’ Jolly realised that the available texts on war surgery dated from 1918, and were written from ‘the viewpoint of the base hospital.’ He decided to produce a surgical manual aimed at ‘younger, inexperienced surgeons, who will be operating in this [coming] war in the casualty clearing stations.’ The resulting volume, ‘Field Surgery in Total War’, became an essential item of kit for military surgeons for the next several decades. 

A plaque to Jolly in Cromwell, Central Otago in New Zealand.

With the rank of lieutenant-colonel, Jolly served in the Second World War in the Middle East and Italy, occasionally encountering patients familiar to him from Spain. As a Stockton teenager, Johnny Longstaff had fought in the Battle of the Ebro and received a facial wound. He was treated by Jolly at the International Brigade hospital at Mataró, north of Barcelona. Six years later Longstaff was wounded in Italy, and again found himself on Jolly’s operating table, at the New Zealand hospital near Naples. 

In 2018 a plaque to Jolly was unveiled in his hometown of Cromwell, Central Otago, on the wall of a store founded in 1870 by his grandfather. A biography is in progress, for publication by a US academic press.


Posted on 4 June 2020.

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