War suffering inspires symbol of sacrifice

On a past Memorial Day, a member of a local Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion organization may have given you a little red plastic poppy. You may have stuck it in your lapel or wrapped its stem around your purse handle to show your gratitude to military personnel who died in service to their country.

You may not know, however, that a doctor of osteopathic medicine is why the red poppy symbolizes this ultimate sacrifice.

John McCrae, holder of both D.O. and M.D. degrees, was a Canadian Army surgeon during World War I. Although he had been a doctor for years, he was horrified by the suffering, screams and bloodshed during 17 days of fierce fighting in spring 1915 in Belgium.

“I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that 17 days…Seventeen days of Hades!” he later wrote.

Among the casualties was McCrae’s young friend and former student, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. The day after McCrae performed the funeral ceremony, in absence of a chaplain, he perched on the back of an ambulance and expressed his anguish in a poem, in view of his friend’s grave and the wild poppies that cloaked the cemetery.

That poem, “In Flanders Fields,” was first published by the English newspaper Punch on Dec. 8, 1915. Instantly popular, it made the red poppy a moving symbol of service and sacrifice.

In Flanders Fields

Sources: DMU Library Archives and the Arlington National Cemetery website

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