Fostering Collaboration for the Public Good: Sphagnum Moss and WWI

A look at one of the many ways the Smithsonian’s mission to increase and diffuse knowledge brought scientific knowledge to aid the public good. 

William Ralph Maxon, by Unknown, circa 1930, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2009-4247.
One hundred years ago, World War I was touching the lives of millions of people around the world, including the staff of the Smithsonian. Living in Washington, D.C., Smithsonian staff watched as the United States mobilized its armed forces as never before and the country joined the fray in Europe. Staff across the Smithsonian found ways to use their expertise to aid the war effort in everything from naval intelligence to even the creative uses of moss.

William Maxon, a curator from the Department of Botany, was one such employee tapped to help the war effort. In December 1917, he received a shipment of specimens that had been identified by a fellow botanist and specialist in mosses. The moss specialist, A. LeRoy Andrews, suggested that several types of moss had been used successfully as surgical dressings on the front lines of the war. With no end of the fighting in sight and resources running thin, a low-cost, naturally occurring, and plentiful source of wound dressings would be a welcome discovery. Research published just months earlier in The Lancet, a leading medical journal, had suggested that sphagnum moss, properly gathered and cleaned, made a superior wound dressing than cotton gauze. The moss could absorb up to seven times its weight in fluid and it had naturally occurring antiseptic properties that fought infection better than cotton gauze. Coordinated gathering of sphagnum moss quickly began in Scotland and by 1917 had spread across the United Kingdom and across Canada.

Making sphagnum moss surgical dressings at one of the branch stations of the American Red Cross, Sou

Leonhard Stejneger, by Unknown, circa 1920, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2009-4251.
Maxon took this information and immediately brought it to his colleagues attention. Dr. Leonhard Stejneger, the head curator of the Department of Biology, found Maxon’s suggestion of serious enough interest that he suggested it be brought to Smithsonian Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott's attention. 

Just a few days later, Secretary Walcott wrote a letter to the Surgeon General of the US Army to bring sphagnum moss’s possible medical use to his attention. The US Army quickly put Secretary Walcott in touch with Mr. E.C. Crossett of the American Red Cross, who was leading the United States investigation into the use of sphagnum moss for surgical dressings. As it turned out, Crossett was bringing an expert in sphagnum moss to Washington the next month, to investigate its use thorughout the US Armed Forces. Crossett made sure that the information provided by the Smithsonian would be included in the investigations. 

The wide breadth of knowledge covered at the Smithsonian facilitated discoveries like this. Curators routinely acted on their mission to increase and diffuse knowledge by making sure their academic insights were conveyed not only to the scientific community, but also to the public at large – and especially to those who could put it to use for the public good. Located in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian was uniquely situated to help bring scientific resources and the academic community’s knowledge to help in the war effort. With the Red Cross and the Office of the Surgeon General, the Smithsonian made sure the best information available was put to use to aid the soldiers on front lines of WWI. 

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