April 15, 2014
The deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history 67 years ago this week in Texas City — one that changed the state’s emergency response system — is chronicled in a Texas Medical Association (TMA) exhibit.
TMA’s History of Medicine Gallery exhibit, “Bugs, Bones, and Blood,” features artifacts from the April 16, 1947, tragedy in the harbor town southeast of Houston. Dental records used to identify victims, telegraphs reporting victims, photos, and medical equipment and supplies used to treat patients now are on display at TMA.
The Texas City event began with a fire on the Grandcamp, a U.S. Liberty ship built to deliver cargo during World War II. As firefighters battled the blaze, the ship exploded, killing nearly 500 people and leaving another 100 people missing. Within 24 hours, the High Flyer ship also exploded, killing two more people.
The aftermath of the explosions and fires underscored the importance of direction and coordination in emergency response. This led Texas to establish a state emergency management office to coordinate and quickly direct the help needed.
The Texas City scene was chaotic.
“We started operating ... one patient after another, too numerous to count, and didn’t stop through all of Wednesday afternoon, Wednesday night, Thursday morning, and afternoon, and Thursday night,” described the late John M. Thiel, MD, a faculty member in the Department of Surgery at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) the day of the Texas City disaster. “Finally at 7 o’clock in the morning on Friday, I was able to stop, along with members of my operating team, to obtain some rest.”
He described the scene as being in a “war theater and attending to casualties of a war conflict … .”
The TMA display also features a letter from the late Sam Nixon, MD, describing his experiences during the tragedy, and his personal resolve as a result. “I decided the medical profession is the only thing for me. I have had my ups and downs on it ... . But not anymore,” wrote the first-year UTMB medical student in a letter to his parents. The young Mr. Nixon later became a physician and served as TMA president in 1991-92.
“Bugs, Bones, and Blood” examines the history of forensic medicine, which began when a forensic pathologist and other experts searched for a cause when death was sudden or mysterious. The Kennedy assassination is among the events featured in the exhibit, which traces forensic medicine back to its roots some 5,000 years ago.
The exhibit includes images and artifacts from the TMA archives, as well as contributions from the Blocker History of Medicine collections, Moody Medical Library, and The University of Texas (UT) Medical Branch, Galveston; Moore Memorial Library, Texas City; The Sherlock Holmes Society of Austin, Texas Department of Public Safety, and Historical Museum, Austin; and the UT Southwestern Library Archives, Dallas.
TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 47,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 112 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans.
Editor’s note: “Bugs, Bones, and Blood” is in the History of Medicine Gallery on the first floor of the TMA building at 401 W. 15th St. in Austin through October 2014. It is free and open to the public 9 am-5 pm Monday through Friday. For more information or to arrange a tour, call (512) 370-1552 or email Betsy Tyson.
Contact: Pam Udall
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