Base Hospital 21 – a US military hospital staffed by doctors and nurses of the Washington University Medical Center and civilian volunteers from the St. Louis area – served with distinction during World War I. The 21st was one the first six military hospitals units sent ahead of the American military to serve in France during the war. The officer corps had been drawn in large part from the medical staff of Washington University Medical School and Barnes Hospital. Dr. Fred T. Murphy, professor of surgery at Washington University School of Medical, was commissioned as the commanding officer for the military hospital. Also, Dr. Malvern B. Clopton, professor of clinical surgery at WUSM, acted as the chief surgeon for the base hospital. Julia Stimson, superintendent of Washington University Training School for Nurses, became the unit’s chief nurse.
Organized in July 1916 the unit was mobilized on April 27, 1917. On May 17, 1917, the unit left St. Louis for New York and set sail for Europe on May 19, 1917. Disembarking at Liverpool, England, on May 28, 1917, the 21st trained for a short time in Britain. On June 10, the unit landed at Le Havre, France and on the following day arrived in Rouen, the largest city in France's Normandy region, where it took over and operated British General Hospital No. 12.
The original capacity of the hospital was 1,350 beds, but by October 1918 as many as 1,950 patients were cared for at one time. It received 29,706 surgical and 31,837 medical cases. Of these, 2,833 were American, the remainder being British and other Allied Forces.
The greatest testament of the excellence of the care provided was how many of the unit’s key members were promoted to greater responsibility by the end of the war. The unit’s chief neurologist Sydney Schwab was reassigned as the commander of the first American hospital specifically for shell shock cases, orthopedic surgeon Nathaniel Allison was made co-director of all orthopedic surgery in the combat zone; head nurse Julia Stimson would become the head of the Red Cross nursing service and Chief Nurse of the American Expeditionary Forces, and Fred Murphy would be promoted to head of the Medical and Surgical Service for the Red Cross.
Following the Armistice ending the war on November 11, 1918, the 21st continued to care for the wounded and the sick and repatriated prisoners of war. In 18 months of service in France, the 21st had treated 61,543 patients.
On January 22, 1919, the hospital was demobilized and the last of the patients were discharged or transferred. After several months of incidental duties and awaiting orders, the officers and enlisted men sailed to the U.S. on April 7, 1919, while the nurses sailed on May 12th. In 23 and a half months of active service, the unit spent 23 months overseas.
After returning to the United States in 1919, Base Hospital 21 was designated a Reserve Officer Corps unit of the General Hospital category. During World War II the unit was known as the 21st General Hospital.