Bismarck doctor caught in the crossfire of the ‘great conflagration’

BISMARCK, ND — Letter, after letter, after letter, found and read by a group of University of Mary students from Dr. Joseph Stuart’s Cultural History of the Great War class, help tell the story of North Dakota’s involvement in World War I and bring mixed emotions of charm, humor and sadness.

Dr. Joseph Stuart

“Our students would sign in at the North Dakota State Archives like regular researchers and then comb through four volumes of letters printed in newspapers from between 1918 and 1919, mostly, and then they were lovingly collected and pasted into a scrapbook—more than 1,000 of them,” said Stuart, whose students spent most of their spring and summer of 2017 on this project. “All the letters we are working on now were printed in newspapers back then—letters to family and friends that they took to their local newspaper office during the war. They are an incredible treasure. Once the students got into it they simply kept going on their own steam—the letters are that fascinating and gut wrenching.”

The initiative began with a request from Darrell Dorgan, director of the North Dakota World War I Centennial Commission. This commission will work with schools, news media, and communities through 2017-2018 to create a project honoring the 30,000 people from North Dakota who served in the First World War and the 1,300 who died in the conflict. It also seeks to support the national effort to build a memorial in Washington, D.C. With the help of the North Dakota Newspaper Association (NDNA), Dorgan hopes that these letters from soldiers, nurses and those just caught in the middle of the war from across the state could be republished in special editions of local newspapers during the week of November 11, 2017. On November 11, University of Mary students will utilize these letters to perform a Reader’s Theater inside the North Dakota Heritage Center’s Russell Reid Auditorium at 1 p.m., called “Letters from the Great War,” that will also include a lecture by Stuart.

“The problem was finding the letters,” added Stuart. “Once the letters were found the students created a database of letters from each county. The database recorded biographies of letter-writers, plot summaries and reference information. The project shifted to stage two by selecting interesting letters from soldiers from each of the 53 North Dakota counties in the database and transcribing them into documents for submission to the NDNA.”

One story collected is of a Bismarck resident named Dr. Eric Quain. A man of Swedish dissent, Quain earlier had befriended the Mayo Brothers and hoped to build a clinic in Bismarck similar to the one in Rochester, MN. In 1902, Quain and Ramstad opened the second clinic in the United States. In 1909, Bismarck Hospital became the largest medical facility in the state and the first hospital in North Dakota to have an X-ray machine. In 1912, because of Quain, the hospital became the first in the country to use Novocain as a local anesthetic.

The September 4, 1914, edition of the Bismarck Tribune reported that Quain just returned from England. Earlier that summer, on June 13, he had sailed to Europe to inspect medical clinics and got stuck over there as the conflict broke out.

In London Quain witnessed the crowds of thousands cheering General Herbert Kitchener during the initial review of troops; for days the city of London scarcely slept. Quain said that during his medical tours on the continent he could see that people in Germany, Austria, and Belgium had achieved a “very high type of civilization. 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,” stated Quain.

By late August that “high type of civilization” had created thousands of widows and orphans. “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time,” British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked to a friend on the eve of the war. A cloud of darkness enveloped that modern, sophisticated, beautiful civilization of Europe for the next seventy-five years and E. P. Quain from Bismarck watched it happen.

“Dr. Quain said that the Americans in London owe the people of that city a debt of gratitude it will be hard to repay. Americans arrived in the city penniless, friendless, without baggage. Instead of treating them with suspicion and distrust, or demanding money, the London hotels welcomed them with open arms… To pay their bills, their credit was good and they could send the money from the United States when they arrived home. Everywhere there was the closest bond of friendship between the English and the Americans, the Londoners treating them with every possible kindness and consideration. Many a poor, worn traveler exclaimed that it seemed like heaven to reach London after what they had been through.”

While many wanted nothing to do with the war, Quain felt the need to help. Shortly after his return to Bismarck, Quain went back to Europe and organized a Red Cross hospital unit in France and staffed the hospital with volunteer doctors and nurses from Bismarck. Because of his efforts and skills, Quain was made chief of surgical services in military hospitals in France.

Governor Doug Burgum signed a proclamation commemorating April 6th, the day the U.S. entered the war in 1917, as World War One North Dakota Centennial Day.

Stuart notes this exciting project has engaged students while serving as a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice paid by thousands from the state 100 years ago. It is one of many projects planned through the North Dakota Centennial Commission.

“Remembering the Great War through the letters of North Dakota soldiers not only helps us understand the seminal event of the 20th century, but also the underlying causes of conflict.”

Dr. Stuart invites the public to contact him and his research team with suggestions or copies of family letters in private possession from the Great War for consideration to be included in this project. Office phone: 701-355-8362; email: