This story in our World War I Centennial series is written by Joseph T. Stuart, Ph.D., associate professor of history at the University of Mary in Bismarck.
By Joseph T. Stuart
Although the U.S. did not enter the Great War until 1917, a number of Bismarck residents left to serve in the conflict before then, fighting alongside British troops or as nurses with Canadian forces. The story of Dr. E.P. Quain is particularly fascinating because he witnessed both the beginning and the end of the conflict.
A cultured gentleman born in Sweden, Quain arrived in Bismarck in 1899 and three years later started the renowned Quain and Ramstad Clinic — now Sanford Clinic. Some of the North Dakota nurses who served in the war received through Quain’s clinic, said one, “a most wonderful training, one that any nurse would prize.” A nurse from the eastern U.S. told Wanda Dreger, a Bismarck nurse, that “If he is one of your surgeons from your hospital, I am envious of you.”
As soon as the U.S. declared war, Quain went to Washington to offer his services. Returning to Bismarck, he organized a mobile surgical section with volunteer Bismarck nurses under his command and equipped largely by local organizations. Connected to a base hospital in France, Quain — a hero to the nurses — led his unit to the front lines of battle.
One nurse who served with him remembered thousands of patients passing through the hospital and the front so near she could hear the continuous roaring of guns. “Yet there was a feeling of satisfaction to those who flung themselves into the work of binding the wounds and alleviating suffering humanity as nobly as did those nurses,” she wrote.
Three years before, Quain had toured medical clinics throughout Europe and found himself stuck in London as the war broke out in the summer of 1914. In an interview upon finally returning home to Bismarck in September, he told of fellow Americans fleeing the continent to London to escape the conflict. The Londoners treated the forlorn American travelers with great kindness, opening hotels for them. Dr. Quain witnessed the huge crowds of people cheering in the streets at the outbreak of war, unaware of the years of misery ahead.
In his 1914 interview, Quain told the Bismarck Tribune of the high type of civilization achieved by Germany. “Their cities are beautiful, with clean streets, fine buildings, great, airy parks and their hospital buildings are models. Germany was making wonderful progress industrially, everybody was happy, busy, prosperous. Now, in Germany, and all over Europe, this prosperity has given way to terrible uncertainty, business establishments are ruined, homes are wrecked, thousands and tens of thousands of widows and orphans must appeal to a nation already strained in every fibre.”
Europe stood at the height of prosperity and global dominance in 1914. The period before the war has been remembered as the Golden Age, the Gilded Age, or the Belle Epoque. It was an era of peace, prosperity, and artistic and technological innovation.
However, the seemingly endless slaughter of the Great War destroyed the faith of Europeans in their own values. It ended an age and Dr. Quain saw it happen — both at the outbreak and at the exhausted end in the Armistice of 1918, as his surgical section worked to clean up the mess.