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Maggots in Wartime

Here is a selection of letters we have received from patients regarding their experiences with maggots in wounds during wartime.

While I did not have maggots treated to me by Doctors they did much to save my life in Malaya in 1942.

As a serving member of the 2nd Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment, I landed in Singapore on 13th January 1942 and was shortly in action in the Bata Phat area of Jahore.

On 25th January 1942 I received shrapnel wounds and was taken to the regiment aid post. Later that day the Brigade Group were cut off and orders were given that all who were able should make their way to Singapore.

This left about 100 wounded who were unable to walk, under the care of 2 Mosand, a few RAMC personnel. The IJA overran us the next morning. With us was the unit Padre and his Batman. The IJA then took away the RAMC people and we were held there for about 2 or 3 weeks and then in stages taken via Ayih Hytam and Lebis and Gemmis to Pudu Jail in Kualar Lumpar, where on arrival we received some medical help from our fellow POW's and this being about one month on we were crawling with maggots.

Our medical team, with their limited resources did everything they could for our care. You will see from this I have every reason to be pleased with the work the maggots did on my behalf.

Major B.A, Great Yarmouth

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During my stay in Kuching camp in Borneo, whilst working at the docks, I received a kick from one of the Japanese guards who thought I wasn't working fast enough.

The kick was to the front of my leg on the shin bone. Over the next week or so the kick had flared up to a wound about half an inch deep. After about a week or so it was very bad, throbbing, with puss coming from it. At this time, our doctor, a Col. King was treating my wound with hot water or by trying to let the wound dry out. By this time, after about a month both the doctor and I were getting a bit desperate, as instead of healing my wound had turned into an ulcer.

Finally Col. King suggested that we try something that he had heard about, but had never tried. He explained that we should let lies get get into the wound for a day. This was done and the wound was covered up.

Within a couple of days I could feel movement under my bandage (banana leaf), so I went along to the doctor. I was horrified to see maggots crawling about my leg ulcer! The doctor then took all but one of the maggots away and the wound was covered up again. Within a week, after again checking that all was well, he took the last big fat maggot away. The wound was bright red, clean with no puss. I was amazed at the difference.

The ulcer, within a month was healing, with no puss, clean and no throbbing. The scar on my shin bone is about four inches and I have to be very careful not to break the skin, even after 50 years.

I was in front of a tribunal of doctors after coming home and tried emphasise to them about the treatment I had been given by Col. King. I could see by their expression that they didn't believe me but thank goodness for your article about healing by maggots! I can now show my disbelievers that my story was true.

Cockburn W.G, Clacks

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At the fall of Singapore in February 1942, I was suffering from a wound on my shoulder and a jungle ulcer on my right ankle contracted in the Malagan Campaign some weeks before.

On 13th February I entered the Queen Alexandra Military Hospital, and owing to the doctors being busy I was sent upstairs to be cared for by the medical orderly, Cpl. Sinclair and his Eurasian wife. Before he could attend to my wounds the Japanese broke into the ward brutally killing him and his wife and also wounding the soldiers leaving no one to tend to my wounds.

Unable to stand the pain on my ankle any longer I found some scissors and proceeded to cut the bandage which had been on for about four days. When it was removed, to my horror I found my ankle was a mass of writhing maggots. I hobbled to the toilets and immediately washed them away and to my amazement the flesh was all very red and very healthy looking. The ulcer was the size of a fifty pence piece, the pain had gone and after about four days the ulcer began to heal on it's own. I still have the scar on my ankle to this day.

John Wyatt, London

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I read with interest the article in the recent FEPOW letter on Maggots. I was a P.O.W in Siam from 1942 - 1945 and hope that the following may be of use to you.

In march 1943, I had a large ulcer on the calf of my right leg, about 4"x2", quite deep and full of pus, following a bamboo scratch. I was sent down country to the the hospital camp at Chungkai and there saw a Medical Officer who perscribed EUSOL to the orderly to treat the wound, which was then bandaged. I was told to report back in 14 days.

During that time, I noticed some irritation in the wound area, and I duly reported back to the Medical Officer after two weeks.

When the bandaged was removed, to my horror, the wound was full of maggots! The M.O was delighted, and after the orderly had removed them all, the wound which had been full of pus originally, was now clean flesh.

Although the wound took a long time to heal, eventually it did.

Esmond F.V Love

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I read in my copy of London FEPOW Post of your interest in the use of maggots in the cleansing of ulcerated wounds, and my own experiences may or may not be of further interest to you.

As a POW of the Japanese, and a member of the RAF. I was in 1943/44 for a working party in Sumatra, and of course in common with most POW's suffered from leg ulcers. These ulcers almost always emanated from a mere scratch and with no means of medication they graduated into ulcers. In my case I had two ulcers (one each inside ankle). Dr Braithwaite was our medical officer and he somewhat surprised me by prescribing treatment by maggots administrated by a medical orderly under his direction..

The maggots were obtained from the plentiful supply bred in the latrine pits, washed and kept in a jar by the orderly. My ulcers about the size of a florin were then covered by about 6/12 maggots each ankle held in place by a dirty piece of shirt material which was my only "bandage" in my possession, bound at the edges with bits of string to obviate their escape (not that the maggots would want to leave their place of malnutrition). I do not remember any pain, but experienced a tingling sensation as the maggots circled around. After 24 hours the bandaged was removed and the fat maggots were disposed of , and a fresh supply of maggots were placed on the wounds, with the same bandage on. I do not recall whether any further dressings were applied but amazingly the wound was cleansed of pus and dead flesh, and after a few days covered by just the dirty bandage the wound began to reduce in size until eventually it became just a scar. Sorry but I cannot recall the healing time, but I only had two days off work.

Incidently, it was the practice of guards to go round the huts to try and catch the bludges (there were of course identifiable off duty "cooks" and camp workers), and in my case on one of the surges the guard demanded that I removed the bandage so that I could prove my inactivity. When he saw the red raw mass of moving pus his eyes rolled and he hurried out - to be ill I hope!

The treatment was tried in many other cases and I do not recall any failures. Those whose ulcers had not been treated grew gradually to enormous sizes and many legs were amputated. It may also be of use to you to mention that at that time, desperate means were adopted under medical supervision to ease the lack of nutrition and one I recall was the use of maggots. The maggots were extracted by the bucket full from the latrines, washed then boiled seven times (so I'm told), then fried in palm oil until crisp, then pounded into almost powder form. Two spoonfuls each on our rice, which added a potato crisp flavor and not unpleasant flavor either. The palm oil was in fact an orange coloured heavy grease made from palm oil leaves. One of my mates Pet Hewitt, a Canadian in RAF, somehow possessed a dice sized chunk of sulphur, which when scraped into a small supply of the orange grease (which he nicked form the axle of the steam roller) made a good ointment. We few mates all had "crabs" on the scrotum, and this ointment cleared all four of us overnight.

I suppose I have rabbited on a bit, but I am happy to have shared the after going information, and even more happy if you have benefited from it - If not then only your time has been wasted.

Keth D Robertson

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I was interested to read the article on Maggot Therapy in the Times Magazine of 31 August 2002 and particularly about your work in this field.

You might be interested to learn that POWs working on the Death Railway in Thailand during the Second World War used maggots on their leg ulcers with great success.

After the maggots had done their work the ulcers were syringed out with Eusol or saline solution, which was less painful than using a scalpel (albeit a bamboo one) otherwise shrieks of pain rent the air!

The next step was to sprinkle sulphonilamide powder (good old M&B 693) on the wound and the ulcer healed beautifully. Sometimes a skin graft was carried out but this wasn't too popular though it did provide a protective coating on the wound.

The slightest scratch from a bamboo and an ulcer formed rapidly. Our poor diet and primitive living conditions in the jungle prevented normal healing. We never had this problem in Singapore or Malaya.

I am not sure where we got our maggots from - possibly fermented rice - but we were not all that curious to find out! The kitchens were out of bounds for us.

I trust you do not mind my writing to you in this vein, but I couldn't resist the opportunity of doing so after I read the Times article.

MHC Burns (Major Retired, late Indian Army)

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Reading your article on maggots and healing, we nurses from various London hospitals were sent to the Southern Hospital, Dartford, to open up wards for the Dunkirk survivors. Eventually we had naval, army and civilian patients. The Hospital had been an isolation complex and prefab units of wards were situated in the lower region and 52 bed blocks were in the upper region. K Block was the Theatre block: quite a mixture but grand nursing if one didn't mind primitive conditions etc.

We used the maggots and plaster type of treatment especially on genital and buttock areas. The results were fabulous. Where once all one could treat with was Eusol, which took a long while and scarred, we noticed clean wounds and no hideous scarring, but the stench was appalling and the flies also in the upper wards.

Cockroaches were rife: we would scrape them off the breakfast porridge container s knowing the kitchen staff were doing the same with our porridge. We never had infections, and wards were cleaned with sprinkled tea-leaves and were spotless. We nurses did night duty looking after 52 service patients etc on our own: if lucky, we had a runner. Imagine setting-up obstructional meal tests on several patients at six in the morning, passing Ryles tubes up into each nostril, taking the first test and all those temps etc to take before eight o'clock and off duty.

We scrubbed and accompanied our patients to Theatre: very primitive, rather like MASH. Patients were stretchered down and up stairs with square bends!!!

Life was pretty exciting and cross-infection was unbeknown to us on a surgical ward: the only one we encountered was a 50 year old with 3rd stage syphilis which had escaped the net. We were all wondering why the surgical wounds were supporating and not healing. Of course, this was soon rectified by isolating the said patient who eventually died not very easily.

One could cope after a year of the London Blitz with anything after maggots.

Is the smell as awful I wonder?

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Last modified 2005-10-13 12:38 PM
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