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Dear Folksies: A medical blog from World War II

Linda Bine grew up listening to bedtime stories about her father's experiences in World War II. When he was a second-year Stanford resident in 1942, her father -- René Bine, Jr. -- joined the recently formed 59th Evacuation Hospital, a company comprised largely of Stanford University medical faculty and residents.

The tales he told his daughter were usually lighthearted M*A*S*H-like stories about organizational mishaps or curious fellow soldiers. But as she grew older, Linda learned about a collection of letters, about 250 written over a period of nearly four years, that René had sent to his family — his mother, father and two younger sisters. These letters, all typed, began with the endearing greeting "Dear Folksies."

Following the war, René quickly dove into family life and his work as an internist and cardiologist in San Francisco. He always intended to compile the letters but hadn't managed to complete the task before his 1988 death, Linda said. A former communications professional, the project was right up her alley. She designed a website, which features photos she unearthed from 12 albums, and is unveiling the letters one by one, exactly 75 years to the day after her father wrote them. I spoke with her recently about the project.

Why did you create Dear Folksies?

I started reading the letters and I was really fascinated. I thought it would be interesting as a tribute to him and his unit.

It was really as if he was doing a blog back then. He knew that his family was sharing the letters with other people. It really has that flavor; he was young, everything was new to him, and things were interesting even though they were at war. The letters sound like my dad, only younger, so it was a pleasure for me to spend time with him through them. He was a good writer, and he described his experiences accurately but with lots of personal insights.

I thought it would be interesting for people to experience it the way his parents did, reading one letter at a time every few days or weeks. They'll all be archived on the website, so people can look back at the letters.

Who do you think should follow the blog?

I think it would be particularly interesting for history buffs and for people who like the M*A*S*H television show, because he tells stories about being in the army, but from the perspective of a doctor, not a soldier.

And for medical students, they can get a flavor of what it was like for somebody at that stage of their medical training to have those unique experiences. It was an amazing medical education. He did surgery, anesthesia and saw all kinds of medical cases, infectious diseases and the trauma injuries of war.

What did he write about?

He wrote about their training and travels. They were in Washington, California, New Jersey and Virginia, then continued on to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, France and Germany, where they cared for the survivors of the Dachau Concentration Camp after it was liberated.

He talked quite a lot about medicine, which he knew would interest his father, who was also a doctor. For example, they hadn't seen or used antibiotics before. In one of the letters, he referred to sulfanilamide as magic powder and described how they sprinkled it in a wound before they bandaged it.

He wrote about USO shows and the performers who entertained the troops. He wrote about daily life — for example the evening when a friend drove a 'nice, rather new, Ford coupe' into a '2 ft. deep ditch by the Nurses House' — and about his fellow doctors. He really bonded with the people in the unit. After all they went through together, they were the people he was the closest to for the rest of his life.

Linda launched the website in April, and new letters will appear through October 2020. Subscribers can receive an email each time a new Dear Folksies letter appears.

Previously: "Don't go to bed with a malaria mosquito:" exploring World War II medical posters and Image of the Week: World War II-era food wheel
Photos courtesy of Linda Bine (in photo of group of doctors from the 59th Evacuation Hospital, René Bine, Jr. appears in the top right)

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