Feature Christmas 2010: History

“In consequence of enemy action”: British medical students in North American medical schools, 1939–45

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c7041 (Published 13 December 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c7041
  1. Stephen T Casper, assistant professor in history of science
  1. 1Clarkson University, Humanities and Social Sciences, 8 Clarkson Avenue, Box 5750, Potsdam, NY 13676, USA
  1. scasper{at}clarkson.edu
  • Accepted 30 November 2010


Between 1940 and 1945, the Rockefeller Foundation offered fellowships for British medical students to complete their medical training in North America.1 2 3 4 These fellowships arose from the damage caused by the extensive aerial bombardment of medical facilities across Britain and shortages of qualified teachers to train students. To the American committee at the Rockefeller Foundation that provided their fellowships, these medical students became another thread in the enlarging fabric of the “special relationship.” To the British committee charged with selecting them, these students represented a last line of defence, a contingent of students able to fight on should Britain be occupied.5 6

Between two worlds (Jack Vettriano’s On the Border, 1995)


What was the Rockefeller scheme?

Documents from both sides of the Atlantic record the programme that emerged, although the story is chiefly captured by papers held in the Rockefeller Archives (but for a pithy discussion, see Hill7). An early memorandum by Robert Lambert (Rockefeller Foundation) and John Fulton (a Yale physiologist) from September 1940 offers a sense of the origins of the programme: “Fulton has in mind a limited group—not more than a hundred. Thinks US and Canadian medical schools would give free tuition. Yale might take 5, Harvard 10, Columbia 10, etc.”8

The Rockefeller Foundation subsequently allocated $5000 per student,9 while articles in medical journals justified the programme as a consequence of enemy action and the beginning of a new era of cooperation between British and American medical schools.10 In a letter to the BMJ Henry Dale observed that the interchange of medical personnel was the continuation of international collaborations begun by Anglo-American physiologists.11 By March 1941, a letter between the Rockefeller’s Alan Gregg and Edward Mellanby (secretary of the MRC) reveals that the programme was operational and hailed enthusiastically as a “practicable …

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