The classic movie “The Best Years of Our Lives” tells the story of three World War II soldiers returning to their hometown after the war ends. One of the soldiers was played by Harold Russell, a World War II veteran who lost both hands in a training accident and ended up at Lawson General Hospital in Chamblee, Georgia. There he received treatment, which included prosthetic hands and training on how to use them in his daily life.
Lawson General Hospital was located where Chamblee Tucker Road meets with West Hospital Avenue (named for the hospital) and Buford Highway. It opened April 15, 1941 and was one of several hospitals constructed when the United States determined that current medical facilities were not adequate. Adjacent to Lawson was Naval Air Station Atlanta, built in 1940. Naval Air Station Atlanta and Lawson General Hospital were built on land that was once part of World War I encampment Camp Gordon and is now the home of DeKalb Peachtree Airport.
The name Lawson came from Thomas Lawson, U.S. Surgeon General from 1836 until 1861.
Lawson General Hospital was a cantonment-type hospital, with rows of one-story buildings built from Georgia pine. The setup was intended to help prevent the spread of disease. The hospital started out with 2,500 beds, but later increased to 4,000.
The facilities included a headquarters building, hospital wards, mess hall, the Medical Department Technician’s School and barracks for personnel. Lawson offered surgical, medical, and dental training, but it also offered training for occupational therapy, physical therapy, dieticians and cadet nurses. Over the years, it became known as the hospital that specialized in neurosurgery and prosthetics.
Today, the former home of Lawson General Hospital is the location of the IRS and CDC Chamblee Campus. The early CDC Chamblee campus utilized Lawson General Hospital’s buildings. The CDC grew out of an effort called MCWA, Malaria Control in War Areas. The program’s purpose was to control malaria and typhus among soldiers during World War II. (stacks.cdc.gov)
Individuals trained at Lawson General Hospital often were assigned to other military hospitals, such as the 313th hospital at Camp Rucker in Alabama. The 313th was activated in June of 1942 and sent overseas. According to “A Century in North DeKalb: The Story of the First Baptist Church of Chamblee”, the 85th and 62nd General Hospital Units and Second and Fourth auxiliary surgical groups also trained at Lawson for overseas duty.
The surrounding communities rallied around Lawson General Hospital by visiting with patients and inviting them into their homes for a home-cooked meal. Family members who came to visit patients often stayed in the home of a nearby resident, as there were no hotels nearby. For these soldiers, usually far from home, the community’s efforts to comfort and entertain helped them get through a difficult time.
Thank you to Gerald Keating, who shared his research on Lawson General Hospital. Keating is retired from the U. S. Army Medical Service Corps. Additional information regarding World War II hospitals can be found at the U. S. Army Office of Medical Records website, history.amedd.army.mil.