Royal Army Medical Corps
Jungle surgeon, Canadian hero
Posted: November 10, 2008, 10:36 AM by Kelly McParland
By Bernie M. Farber
During the Second World War, many Canadians demonstrated the uncommon trait of heroism on the home front, in battle and sometimes in the place where it was most needed but hardest to muster: prisoner of war camps.
Captain Jacob Markowitz was one such hero.
Born in Toronto in 1901, Jacob was a well-educated member of the Jewish community who attended Jarvis Collegiate and went on to the University of Toronto, where he obtained his medical degree and a doctorate in 1926. An expert in the field of intricate organ surgery, Dr. Markowitz became the first person in the world to transplant the heart of one warmblooded animal into another in 1932. Little did he know this expertise would soon help him save hundreds of lives during the course of the Second World War.
In 1941, Jacob Markowitz went to England, where he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a captain. Sent to Singapore, the good doctor found himself up-country just as the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Malay, where he was captured and incarcerated as a prisoner of war. Dr. Markowitz was transferred by the Japanese to the area where British soldiers were building the Bangkok-Moulmein Railway, also known as "The Railway of Death." It was built with the blood of over 200,000 soldiers who lost their lives as forced labourers in its construction. Despite having access only to primitive medical equipment, Dr. Markowitz used his keen mind and extraordinary surgical skills to care for the sick, the beaten and the dying. He performed over 1,000 successful amputations at Chunkai, the POW camp where he was being held, with nothing more than a hacksaw and a little anesthesia. When the anesthesia ran out, he still managed to successfully operate using only Novocain.
Dr. Markowitz became legendary for his incredible efforts to save his fellow POWs at the Chunkai hospital. At its height, the camp, located at the Siam end of the railway, held almost 10,000 POW patients, and conditions were brutal. Many patients suffered from cruel beatings; others had tropical ulcers exposing leg bone that necessitated amputations. With no operating equipment at hand, Dr. Markowitz fashioned his own rudimentary blood funnels from broken bottles for blood transfusions. Incredibly, his meagre but dedicated staff kept patients' blood from coagulating by whipping it with a stick.
Dr. Markowitz noted that the medical conditions were so primitive that he even reached back to his study of Torah to help save lives. In one case, a severely malnourished Australian soldier infected with dysentery was undergoing a hip amputation and stopped breathing. All modern resuscitation methods failed. The memory of the biblical story of the Prophet Elijah's efforts to resuscitate a widow's child inspired Dr. Markowitz, who found some rubber tubing, compressed the soldier's lips and nostrils and blew air into his chest at a rate of 20 times a minute, saving his life. Many years later, in an address at the prestigious Empire Club of Canada, Dr. Markowitz recalled the soldier's comments about his resuscitation: "I'm glad you guys don't eat onions. I hate onions." Said Dr. Markowitz: "These Australians are a hardy race."
Dr. Markowitz kept a personal record of the vile treatment he and his fellow soldiers faced as POWs. Writing after the war, he noted, "The Japanese guards fed sick prisoners pig-feed but even pigs could not live on it. It is because of starvation chiefly that to have been a prisoner of war of the Japanese army in 1942-43 involved, actuarially speaking, a greater risk than [that] faced by a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain or by an army of Canadians bravely fighting their way through Holland."
Even in the horrific conditions of the POW camp, Dr. Markowitz felt it was crucial to maintain records of care for all of his patients. He devised a scheme in which he buried medical documents in bottles beside the bodies of British soldiers. Sadly, there were thousands of soldiers who died, but their legacy lives on because of Dr. Markowitz. After the war, the records were recovered and published. Today, those records stand as a battlefront guide for doctors.
After the war Dr. Markowitz was awarded one the highest of British military honours: the Order of the British Empire. The citation read:
"As joint originator and supervisor of a fully successful transfusion service in prisoner of war camps in Siam using the most primitive and improvised apparatus, Captain Markowitz has shown skill and ability of an outstanding degree. His training of transfusion teams, his development of simple techniques for jungle surgery and his ingenious methods of improvisation saved many hundreds of lives. He has shown great disregard for personal danger and risk of brutality in order to serve his patients."
His ingenuity, courage and faith helped Captain Dr. Jacob Markowitz not only survive in horrid conditions, but help thousands of others. He is a true example of a Canadian hero.
-Bernie M. Farber is the CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress. This article is part of a continuing annual CJC series of Canadian Jewish war veteran articles to commemorate Remembrance Day.