ANZAC memories:

Cotter Harvey at war

Posted by Karen Myers, Curator, on April 28, 2023.

One of the most significant archival collections held by the History of Medicine Library is that of William Cotter Burnell Harvey, FRACP.

Cotter Harvey was witness to the fall of Singapore in 1942 and survived the Changi Prisoner of War camp. He had enlisted in the Australian Army Medical Corp (AAMC) despite being 44 years of age and having a young family of five children. Initially stationed in charge of the medical division of the 2/10th Australian General Hospital (AGH) at Malacca, he was captured when Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15th February 1942. Cotter Harvey became a POW along with thousands of other Australian and British troops.

The morale of the hospital fell rapidly during the afternoon and when at 5, a shell burst in our garden, a rapid decision was reached - to evacuate the whole hospital immediately! This was a terrific task - over 800 patients and a great quantity of gear, to move to 3 different places and in the dark. Briefly, all patients were got out safely (3 died on the way) and a good deal of staff.
-Cotter Harvey, Diary, February 1942

For the next three and a half years he cared for the sick and wounded in Changi and Kranji hospitals. After capture, Harvey and other medical officers sought to continue with their medical training and along with other doctors he worked tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of the prisoners, especially in devising ways to overcome the vitamin deficiency diseases widespread in the camp.

If we can get the right diet, it will vanish of course, but we are fearfully short of all vitamins, so other deficiency diseases will raise their heads. Medically, all very interesting of course, but d - rotten, as these maladies are easily preventable, - and good lives are being lost.
-Cotter Harvey, Letter home, 14th April 1942

His archive features images of the 2/10th AGH established at Malacca before it was removed to Singapore Island on the advancement of the Japanese. It was here combined with the 13th AGH to become a consolidated medical unit. Many of the nurses pictured in these images would have been evacuated to Australia prior to the surrender, but some who sailed on the SS Vyner Brooke became victims of one of the most infamous massacres of the war.

A touching feature of the archive are the cards given to Dr. Harvey by other prisoners at Christmas and on liberation from the camp. (The name F. Nash features on many of them as the artist responsible.)

The Christmas menus collected by Dr. Harvey bear testimony to the impressive work done by the cooking staff in the camps who strived to make at least one day of the year enjoyable for the prisoners. With few resources they were able to produce celebratory meals for the whole camp.

Dr. Harvey himself eventually developed beri-beri, a thiamine deficiency disease, but fortunately made a full recovery and was liberated in 1945.

Post-war he continued to devote himself to the scourge of tuberculosis (his father had died of the disease at age 52) and to the anti-smoking lobby

Much of Dr. Harvey's archive has been digitised and can be viewed online.