Invisible Wounds of War

For November 14, 2018    

Hi WN@TL Fans,

Well, that was a weekend of astonishing images to commemorate the end of The Great War.  Growing up, I didn’t know much about it. My Grandpa Zinnen was in the Army in 1918 and I think he fought the battle of Camp Funston, the one in Kansas. All I know for sure is that he didn’t get shipped to France. Good for Racine;  better for me.

WWII in many ways paralleled but then eclipsed WWI:  by high school I could go through the cadence of WWII battles, but WWI was all a fog. The first connection I made to the Great War was reading the fictional “Johnny Got His Gun” by Dalton Trumbo.  I was numbed by the premise of a soldier wounded so grievously, one who “has lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue), but that his mind functions perfectly, leaving him a prisoner in his own body.”  By the end of the book, his mind wasn’t working so well, either.

In 1970 the movie “Patton” drove home that not all wounds were physical: during the Sicily campaign Patton slaps a shell-shocked soldier, accusing him of cowardice.  In real life, Patton actually slapped two soldiers in August 1943, a week apart, and Eisenhower’s reaction, as well as the public reaction when the incidents hit the news in November, put Patton himself hors de combat for 11 months.

In 1972 the TV series M*A*S*H began its 11 year run, and eventually introduced the recurring character of Dr. Sidney Freedman, who gave us a more compassionate view of the psychological trauma of battle.

Yet it was in no small part the issue of brain damage to football players from repetitive concussions, and the accompanying shifts in personality, that has helped us braid together the psychological and the physiological origins of the shell-shock of WWI, the battle fatigue of WWII, and the current PTSD of survivors of trauma of many types, including combat.

This week (November 14) we conclude our commemoration of the end of World War I with a talk by John Brugge, professor emeritus of Neuroscience, entitled “Invisible Wounds of War:  A Challenge for Neuroscience on the 100th Anniversary of the End of World War I.”

Here’s how John describes his talk:

World War One was a 4-year-long global struggle that broke out in 1914.  Soon after the commencement of hostilities a mysterious condition characterized variably by headache, dizziness, amnesia, tremors, inability to concentrate, difficulty sleeping, depression and suicidal tendency presented itself as being associated with exposure to the high-order explosives being used on the battlefield. In 1915 the term “shell shock” entered our lexicon, and because victims showed no outward signs of physical injury it became “the invisible wound of war”. At that time is was not at all clear whether shell shock was a psychiatric condition related to stresses of combat or whether it was caused by physical injury to the brain, or perhaps both.  On November 11, 1918, at 11 am, the guns fell silent, but the suffering of those victims of shell shock went on.

Shortly after the war attention was being drawn to a symptom-complex that affected professional boxers.  It came be known as “punch drunk” syndrome and appeared to result from repeated blows to the head.  Many of the symptoms included those experienced by military veterans of WWI.  Subsequent neuropathic studies of the brains of boxers revealed gross damage to the brain and neuronal cell loss. Later, using modern neuroscience research methodology, studies of the brains of American football players, as well as athletes in many other sports, revealed the devastating effects of repeated blows to the head and introduced us to “Traumatic Brain Injury (TMI)” and “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)”. To this was added “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)”, a psychiatric condition that can develop after experiencing a traumatic event.  These related neurological and psychiatric disorders have now been reported in military veterans who saw combat in WWII, Vietnam, Gulf War, and are considered to be “signature wounds” of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This talk explores the 100-year history of these invisible wounds of war and the progress made and challenges remaining for neuroscience in understanding the fundamental pathological processes that underlie these related and overlapping disorders.

About the Speaker:

John Brugge earned his BA in biology & chemistry at Luther College and his PhD in Physiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.  He came to Madison as a post-doc in 1963, and then stayed as faculty member rising to professor in the Physiology Department, which through mergers is no known as the Department of Neuroscience, where he has served as emeritus since 2003.

Next week (November 21), we go dark for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  I hope everyone gets to spend the day in your happiest way.  I always liked going over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house.  My kids have traded in the horse and the sleigh for a van and 20 hours on Interstate 90, but they’ll get to see their Grandma and lots of cousins in the Berkshires.  Currier & Ives would approve.

In two weeks (November 28), we’ll be back with Fatou Jallow of the School of Medicine & Public health speaking on the “All of Us” National Research Initiative in Precision Medicine.


Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.


Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Cooperative Extension


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