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Hospitals for Disaster
Office of Civil Defense
Department of Health, Education, and Welfare

Beginning in 1956, the federal government began to stockpile Packaged Disaster Hospitals (PDH) across the United States to ensure a continuity of medical services in the event of an atomic attack.  Modeled upon the mobile army surgical hospital, each PDH contained all the amenities of a fully functioning medical center and was designed to be transported via semi-truck to protected areas outside major target cities.  The caching of these units is detailed in the 1959 film Emergency Hospital which uses a combination of still photographs and animation to depict an organized system of doctors and volunteers working in sterile conditions with ample supplies.  However, when the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare documented the set-up and simulated use of a PDH in Bethesda, Maryland in 1965, a much grittier experience was presented.  The resulting production, Hospitals for Disaster, follows medical officials as they treat mock victims with gory wounds in the aftermath of a hypothetical nuclear exchange.  While the film maintains the optimistic attitude of its predecessor, it strives to create a more realistic scenario.


Hospitals for Disaster was filmed at Bishop McNamara High School in Bethesda and begins with members of the Catholic clergy assisting civil defense personnel in the inspection of stored medical supplies.  By 1964, over 2,000 PDHs were in storage, the vast majority of them along the East Coast.  According to the narrator, their contents must be checked frequently, less they fall victim to moisture and humidity.  The film highlights the sophisticated components of each hospital, which contained their own electricity through a large generator and their own water through a pump system and a massive rubber pool.  During a preparedness drill, many businesses and citizens of Bethesda lend a hand in constructing the PDH.  A local Gulf station provides trucks, labor, and fuel while area pharmacies pledge their expertise as well as additional supplies.  As the clip below demonstrates, McNamara High's gymnasium is transformed into a triage ward and enthusiastic volunteers play the part of victims to test the readiness of the emergency medical community.


Hospitals for Disaster makes it clear that such makeshift medical centers would likely need to remain operative long after any immediate emergencies have passed.  Many factors, including displaced populations, disrupted utilities, or possible fallout contamination could prevent traditional hospitals from treating patients.  The film concludes by focusing on a young boy brought to McNamara High by his parents.  While he needs lifesaving surgery, his ailment stems from acute appendicitis and not from any injury associated with the atomic bomb.  Once properly diagnosed, he is operated on in clean conditions within the school and sent to a recovery ward (once the school's art room) where parent and child are happily reunited.  This scenario, then, is the ultimate goal of a PDH, to shift from emergency trauma care to the treatment of conventional injuries not sustained during the initial disaster.