Nova Scotia

Forgotten chapter of First World War involves brain of Nova Scotia soldier

A Nova Scotian's brain was used as part of a First World War program that extracted body parts of slain soldiers for medical research purposes. Historian Tim Cook's latest book shines light on a forgotten chapter of Canadian history.

Pte. William Gerald Arthrell was buried in 1916 in northern France, but his brain was sent to Canada

Soldiers are shown marching through the streets of what is believed to be Halifax in 1915. They are in full uniform and are also carrying rifles, canteens and satchels.
This photo from 1915, likely taken in Halifax, shows what is believed to be the members of the 25th Battalion. Pte. William Gerald Arthrell of Glace Bay, N.S., served in the battalion around this time. It's unclear whether he's in this photo. (25th Battalion CEF, Halifax, 1915. Photograph by W.G. MacLaughlan. 84-79-14179. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.)

Like roughly 60,000 of his comrades, Nova Scotian William Gerald Arthrell died fighting for Canada during the First World War.

While the teenager's body was buried at the Bailleul Communal Cemetery in northern France, a few kilometres from the border with Belgium, Arthrell's brain made it back to Canada.

That's because Arthrell was one of an unknown number of Canadian soldiers from which 799 body parts were extracted as part of a program that harvested the organs of soldiers for medical research purposes.

"How could we be harvesting the body parts of slain soldiers?" said Tim Cook, the author of Lifesavers and Body Snatchers: Medical Care and the Struggle for Survival in the Great War.

His recent book reveals this forgotten chapter of Canadian history.

Soldiers are shown in a black-and-white photo from July 1916 at the No. 1 Casualty Clearing Station
Soldiers are shown at the No. 1 Casualty Clearing Station in July 1916. It was at this station where Arthrell died just months earlier. (Box number: 83, 7433, 00012A/Library and Archives Canada)

When Arthrell enlisted, the Glace Bay, N.S., man stated he was a miner by trade.

He had a fair complexion, brown eyes and was tall — six feet two and a half inches — according to his military file. The documents note he died on March 26, 1916, after being shot in the head the day before.

Nowhere in his file does it note he was buried without his brain.

Graves at the Bailleul Communal Cemetery in northern France are shown.
Pte. William Gerald Arthrell's body is buried at the Bailleul Communal Cemetery in northern France. (Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

Cook, the chief historian and director of research at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, said it was about two decades ago he first came across a reference to autopsies being conducted on Canadian soldiers.

"I had thought in this war of mass slaughter, of dirt and deprivation, of the high-explosive shells, of the machine-gun fire, chemical agents, that there wouldn't have been time for autopsies," he said.

The document also mentioned body parts being removed. That sparked Cook to comb through archives and the letters of soldiers and medical personnel to learn more.

Cook said the 799 body parts were initially sent to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, where they were stored and treated. Some were presented in exhibition galleries before being sent to Canada.

A photograph of a museum display, dating back to the 1920s. There are bone and organ samples on display, along with works of art, models and artifacts.
Bone and organ samples that were taken as part of a program to harvest organs from slain Canadian soldiers are shown in Montreal in October 1920. Also shown are works of art, models and artifacts. A sign above the flag reads Canadian Medical War Museum. (Submitted by Tim Cook/Penguin Random House)

"There were several thousand additional body parts that remained in London and hundreds of body parts that went to Australia as well, so this was a widespread program," said Cook.

He said it's unclear how many Canadians had their organs harvested. He said the records aren't complete. But he said some soldiers had more than one body part removed.

Having studied the First World War for more than 25 years, Cook is no stranger to the horrors of war, but he said finding out about the program shocked him.

Cook said the program can't be looked at through the modern concept of consent. Rather, he said it's important to think about the environment under which soldiers enlisted.

"When a soldier enlisted during the [First World] War, they signed what was known as an attestation paper," he said. "That basically said, 'Your body is now the army's.' This is the war ... where we shot 25 Canadians to death by firing squad for various forms of punishment."

In his research, Cook looked for documentation where doctors spoke out against the program, but couldn't find anything. Rather, the picture that emerged is that the doctors supported it as an important research tool.

Several men use a stretcher to carry a wounded soldier at Vimy Ridge, France, in April 1917.
A wounded soldier is transported at Vimy Ridge, France, in April 1917. (The Canadian Press)

Cook said some of the medical innovations of the war included new surgical techniques and blood transfusions. Remarkably, more than 90 per cent of wounded Canadian soldiers who were treated by a doctor survived.

"Ironically, from these sites of death and destruction, [the doctors] brought back these lessons to better treat Canadians," said Cook.

In a statement, the Department of National Defence said it did not have any information about the program.

Canadian soldiers use shell holes as makeshift defences at Passchendaele Ridge in November 1917.
Canadian soldiers use shell holes as makeshift defences at Passchendaele Ridge in November 1917. (William Rider-Rider/Getty Images)

"However ... we would be remiss if we didn't take this opportunity to remember the courageous actions of Canadian soldiers during the Great War, many of which made the ultimate sacrifice to protect and preserve our freedom," it said.

At the time of the war, Canada's population was roughly eight million. More than 620,000 people served in uniform.

Arthrell gave his religion as Wesleyan on his enlistment papers. His headstone includes a reference to John 15:13 — Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.


Richard Woodbury is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia's digital team. He can be reached at