First World War

Reflecting on Malta’s vocation as a hub for healthcare and medical education 100 years after the end of WWI

In dramatic contrast to the Second World War, Malta was spared direct involvement in the First World War. Nevertheless, it played a significant strategic role in the conflict. 1915 saw the beginning of Malta's rapid and large-scale transformation into an island hospital. By the end of the war Malta had earned the title of 'Nurse of the Mediterranean', tending to thousands of sick and wounded servicemen daily, offering them respite, refuge and rehabilitation. Malta's present reputation for excellence in medical and healthcare, and medical education has its roots in centuries of tradition including its experience in the Great War.

Sir Archibald Edward Garrod (1857-1936), Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford from 1920 to 1927, served in Malta throughout the First World War as consulting physician to the Army. He contributed decisively to bringing the then infant science of Biochemical Genetics to bear on Medicine and Pathology. On 16 December 2016, together with three other Army doctors, he was conferred the honorary degree of MD "in recognition of the high qualifications possessed and of the special services rendered by the same eminent professors in the cause of humanity during the war". 

Garrod was convinced that Malta's medical tradition going back to the Hospitaller Knights of St John and its climatic conditions supported the vision of the Maltese Islands as a health haven. Malta's gallant performance during the Great War as "the Nurse of the Mediterranean", he argued, had shown what was possible in this small country even in time of armed conflict. In a 1919 lecture, aptly entitled 'Islands', he reminded his audiences of Malta's experience as "...a hospital-base. During the past four years many thousands of sick and wounded men have passed through the hospitals established in our midst. The island [...] has proved a veritable oasis in a desert of warfare, a haven of rest for our stricken soldiers and sailors, and for the crews and passengers of many torpedoed ships."

That, one hundred years after the end of the First World War, Malta ranks high in terms of global health metrics  9th after Singapore, Norway, Sweden, Israel, UK, Netherlands, Canada and Switzerland (The Lancet, Vol.392, November 10, 2018)  and that it continues to attract medical establishments of repute such as Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London (3rd best medical school after Oxford and Cambridge, The Guardian 2018)  the latter has recently established an international medical school in Gozo, the country's second medical school after the School of Medicine of the University of Malta, which establishment traces its history to the School of Anatomy and Surgery founded by Grandmaster Nicholas Cottoner in 1676  is also due to our history. A historical curiosity: the main building of Barts in Whitechapel, London, is named after Sir Archibald Edward Garrod.