The Great War battles were life-changing for all those who experienced their horrors. Allan Tunningley looks at the story of one Kendal-born surgeon, whose experiences in a battlefield trauma tent helped hone his surgical skills – but also turned him into a lifelong pacifist

IN HIS day, Theodore Howard Somervell was arguably one of the finest surgeons ever to pick up a scalpel on the Indian sub-continent.

From 1925 to 1949, he worked at the south Travancore medical mission, which became one of the largest missionary hospitals in the world. Somervell attracted new staff and built an innovative viewing gallery in the operating theatre, where friends and relatives of the patients could observe the surgery.

This helped build trust between the doctors and the surrounding people, and encouraged sick people to go for treatment earlier than had been the case in the past.

Somervell was also an early pioneer of the treatment of leprosy, which until that time had been considered incurable. For his work at the hospital, he was awarded a Kaisar-I-Hind Medal in 1938.

By1949, he was an associate professor of surgery at Vellore Christian Medical College, a post he would hold until his retirement.

A remarkable career by any measure – but none of his patients are likely to have known that Somervell honed his exceptional surgical skills operating on the battle-shattered limbs and organs of the wounded and dying in World War One.

Born in 1890 into the K Shoes family, Somervell attended Rugby and Caius College, Cambridge, graduating with a double first in Natural Sciences in 1912. He completed his subsequent medical studies at University College Hospital and in 1915 joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in France as a surgeon officer.

During the battle of the Somme in 1916 he was one of four surgeons working in a tent, while hundreds of wounded men lay dying on stretchers outside.

On short breaks from surgery, he spoke with some of the dying men and noted that not one asked to be treated ahead of the others. The experience turned him into a lifelong pacifist.

On another occasion, during the final German offensive in March 1918, Somervell operated almost continuously for 70 hours and this immense experience in wartime surgery would serve him well throughout his professional life.

During the conflict, Somervell also explored his talents as an artist, painting a series of war pictures which were exhibited at the New England Art Club in 1917.

Somervell’s other passion was mountaineering and in 1922 he was invited to join the British Everest expedition, forming a close friendship with the famous climber George Mallory.

Somervell, Mallory and two other climbers with several Sherpas set up camp at 7,020 metres, the highest man had ever camped. However, their subsequent attempt at the summit was unsuccessful.

After travelling widely in India, he returned to Everest with the 1924 expedition which ended tragically with Mallory’s death. During the ascent, Somervell and another climber reached an altitude of 28,000 ft (8,570m) without oxygen – a record which was not broken until 1953.

While in the Himalayas, Somervwell treated sick locals he met and also painted the spectacular scenery – believed to be the first artist to do so.

At the age of 72, Somervell retired to Ambleside, where he lived until his death in 1975 at 84.

A teaching hospital at Karakoram, south of Trivandrum – the Dr Somervell Memorial CSI Medical College Hospital – is named in his honour.