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Mass General Hospital


  • Boston (Mass.) Massachusetts General Hospital. Report of activities of social service department staff in Cocoanut Grove disaster, November 28 - December 13, 1942. December 1942. Courtesy of Massachusetts General HospitalFULL TEXT
  • Faxon NW, Churchill ED. “The Cocoanut Grove disaster in Boston: A preliminary account.” Journal of the American Medical Association 120 (1942): 1385-8. Courtesy of Massachusetts General HospitalFULL TEXT 
The timing of the fire was, for Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), fortunate. Less than a year after the Pearl Harbor attack, MGH had started organizing itself in preparation for a catastrophe. It had published a disaster manual, stockpiled sterile supplies for two hundred emergency operations, and other emergency equipment. It has also established its own blood bank. In addition, Saturday nights were always at full staff, and when the ambulances started arriving near the end of a shift, doctors and nurses already on staff were complemented by a new staff. Because a disaster plan was in place, workers did not have to be told what to do, they simply did as had been planned.

The first patients arrived at MGH at 10:30 pm. House staff, nurses on duty, staff teams for burns and resuscitation and social workers were called immediately. By 11:15 pm the entire team was assembled.

One hundred fourteen casualties were sent to MGH. Seventy five were either dead on arrival or died soon thereafter. Dozens died in those first few hours from major injuries, some from asphyxia. Some of the dead showed no outward sign of burns, though many showed the cherry-red color indicative of carbon monoxide or other adverse respiratory exposure.

An emergency morgue was set up and staff started trying to identify the bodies. The task of identifying bodies was fairly simple for men, who carried some sort of wallets. For the women, however, this was difficult, as they had lost forms of ID along with their purses or coats. A description of the women was recorded which included clothing, shoes, jewelry, height, weight and color of hair. In the end, however, most identification was by friends or relatives inspecting the bodies.

Thirty nine were admitted as patients. The treatment of shock was emphasized in the plan of treatment, which began with the administration of morphine and the removal of wet clothing. Burns were dressed with sterile gauze coated with boric ointment, plasma administered, sulfa drugs administered, and morphine provided to anyone who came in alive. There was no cleansing or debridement of burns. A surgeon from the Mass. Eye and Ear Infirmary was there within the hour and no one but he touched the eyes before the nurses could irrigate.

No patient who lived ten minutes after admission died within twelve hours. As of those admitted, five were discharged that week, and seven died the first four days.

Dr. Oliver Cope, along with Dr. Francis Moore embarked on an experimental treatment of surface burn patients by applying sterile gauze and petroleum jelly to their burns rather than the standard tannic acid treatment. This experimental treatment was faster to administer, was less painful for the patient and was easier to care for by the doctors and nurses. This “experiment” changed the standard for burn treatment.

Also working at MGH at this time was Dr. Erich Lindermann, a psychiatrist on staff. Dr. Lindermann was interested in how traumatic experiences and grief reactions affect mental and physical health. He included Cocoanut Grove survivors and their close relatives in a study he started shortly after the fire. His research and subsequent published work laid the groundwork for the treatment of acute grief.

In her “Massachusetts General Hospital Report of Activities of Social Service Department Staff in Cocoanut grove Disaster” Ida Cannon describes in detail both the invaluable role the Social Services team played, but also includes a revised disaster plan for MGH’s medical social workers. 

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