Near the place Georges Brugmann and the rue Joseph Stallaert in Ixelles, there is a monument dedicated to Antoine Depage. For many people, this name perhaps does not mean much, except maybe a street that runs parallel to the Université Libre de Bruxelles. And yet... This man with the fabulous destiny will doubtlessly be the greatest Belgian physician of the Great War. On the eve of the First World War, it was not only the army that was ill-prepared but the overall country that, in view of its neutrality, thought that it would not be affected by this conflict. Faced with this lack of means and this alarming observation, one man assumed responsibility for reorganising the medical services. Starting in 1912, Antoine Depage will learn about wartime surgery. Focusing on the care of the wounded and on medical research, this atypical man will devote all of his energies to saving lives. He will not hesitate to overturn traditions and established orders for the benefit of medicine, a field that was all too often hindered by bureaucracy and preconceived ideas.
The great destiny of this fabulous physician is clear from his first years of secondary school
The early days of an illustrious physician
Born in Boitsfort on 28 November 1862, Antoine Depage grows up as part of a local noteworthy family. His father, Frédéric Depage, was a farmer and the burgomaster of Boitsfort. He served in this capacity from the age of 35, until 1868. In 1852, he marries Elisabeth La Barre with whom he has nine children: one girl and eight boys, one of whom dies prematurely. A. Depage will in fact be largely raised by his older sister Nelly.
The great destiny of this fabulous physician is clear from his first years of secondary school Described as a troublesome student and fairly average, which he admits himself, he is dismissed from the Athénée boarding school in Tournai. After his secondary studies, he works on the farm with his father, who wants him to grasp the realities of life. He becomes friends with two young boys: Armand and Edmond Solvay. These boys are none other than the sons of Ernest Solvay (Belgian chemist and well-known industrialist), who has a country home not far from the Depage home. Influenced by their company, Antoine Depage decides to continue his higher education at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Apparently, he opted for medicine by chance. Not knowing which department to choose, the employee at the registration counter asked him if he wanted to sign up for medicine or law. To which he answered: "Is the price the same for both?" Feeling haggard, the employee thought that this was a joke. However, realising that the question was put in earnest, he registered Depage in the medical programme in which there were, in 1880, fewer students than in law.
A second important meeting in the life of the future Dr. Depage was with another emblematic Belgian figure: Paul Héger (born on 8 March, deceased on 15 February 1906), medical doctor and professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Paul Héger encourages the education of Antoine Depage who, despite initial difficulties in his medical studies, graduates with great distinction. He specialises in surgery and heads abroad, as Paul Héger had done before him, in order to complete his education. Antoine Depage's talent for medicine allows him to teach at the university where he had received his education.
Paul Héger entrusts his ailing father to Antoine Depage. While taking care of Constantin Héger, he meets a certain Marie Picard, the niece of Paul Héger. Antoine and Marie date for a long time and, in 1893, they marry.
Astonishing rise of the simple physician
In 1895, Antoine Depage is appointed as head of the surgical department at the Hospice de l’Infirmerie then at the Hôpital Saint-Jean in Brussels. In the latter hospital, interested in scientific advances, Dr. Depage sets up with Belgium's first clinical research laboratory.
1890 to 1913 will be the years during which Antoine will be most active in terms of teaching and the dissemination of surgery. He founds a surgery magazine ("L’Année Chirurgicale") that will attain worldwide recognition, and also creates the Société internationale de Chirurgie that still exists under the name of the "International Society of Surgery (ISS/SIC)". This society's first conference, for which he is the secretary, is held in Brussels. He is also close to the Belgian Royal Palace, and along with others, cares for the health of King Leopold II.
One of the greatest battles fought by Dr. Depage is to improve the efficiency of the care provided to patients.
A prophetic experience
One of the greatest battles fought by Dr. Depage is to improve the efficiency of the care provided to patients.He believes that this efficiency is only possible if, within hospitals, trained and extremely competent nursing staff are employed in order to assist physicians with their tasks. In his view, tradition and bureaucracy constitute a second roadblock on the path of medical progress. Throughout his career, he remains attentive to new designs and techniques that improve the care provided to patients. He does not hesitate to challenge the various institutions that prefer to act according to the established rules, rather than pursuing innovations. With this in mind, Antoine Depage sets up his private clinic in the place Georges Brugmann. This clinic is one of the most modern of its era, thereby resulting in many budget problems.
His commitment is also seen in politics, and in rather unexpected domains such as scouting. Wishing to counter the influence of the Conseil des Hospices (that manages the hospital in Brussels), the budget of which is provided by the Communal Council, he registers as a self-employed consultant.
Antoine Depage's work as a surgeon is also performed under extreme conditions. One of the most important experiences of his career as a surgeon is his service during the Balkan War of 1912. He puts himself in the service of the Belgian Red Cross and sets up a medical team in order to head to Turkey. This team includes his wife as nurse, and his son as stretcher-bearer. He also calls on other physicians, including surgeon Fernand Neuman (born in Brussels on 1 November 1879 and deceased in Jambes on 19 June 1958), who will become his right hand man during this conflict. This confrontation with reality in the field helps him to acquire a knowledge of wartime surgery that will be not insignificant for the rest of his career.
The main problem noted by surgeons during the Balkan War is the transportation of the wounded. With hospitals being located too far from the front lines (with the distance between the front and the hospital being easily estimated at no less than 50 km), many of the wounded succumb on the battlefield for lack of transportation.
Unfortunately, Antoine Depage's experiences as a war surgeon does not end with the Balkan War.
Depage at the front
Unfortunately, Antoine Depage's experiences as a war surgeon does not end with the Balkan War.In August 1914, the queen of the Belgians, Elisabeth, directs him to set up the medical organisation of the Red Cross. During the First World War, the role of this organisation was to provide the Belgian army with the equipment and physicians needed for the war. However, on the eve of the conflict, it was unable to provide the minimum resources expected of it. As such, numerous "ambulances" (improvised hospitals) are set up. The ambulances will be part of the controlled medical and administrative network: any facilities improperly using the Red Cross symbol will be closed down! With the help of his wife and others, A. Depage sets up a 1000-bed "ambulance" in the Royal Palace. Thanks to their efforts, the Palace will be equipped with an operating theatre – where A. Depage will himself look after the most serious cases – an x-ray department and a laboratory.
As of October 1914, the Germans control most of the hospitals in occupied Belgium, thereby strongly limiting the actions available to Antoine Depage. As such, at the end of October, he secretly leaves Brussels via Holland, and meets up with the King of the Belgians Albert 1st at Furnes (south of Coxyde). His family follows shortly thereafter.
During this month of October, the first battle of the Yser comes to a close with an army left to its own devices and without medical resources, given that it is cut off from the rest of Belgium. The wounded from the Yser front are therefore evacuated to the rear (often in France or England). In the absence of treatment provided sufficiently quickly, many soldiers succumb to their wounds. Faced with this disastrous observation, the King orders Antoine Depage to set up front line "ambulances", as he had done in occupied Belgium. He will therefore do everything possible to set up such facilities, and to improve the existing services.
In November 1914, the Depage couple moves to Calais. He then takes command of an ambulance set up within the Institut Jeanne d’Arc, and transforms it into a surgical hospital.
Antoine Depage's experience during the Balkan War confirmed the importance of providing soldiers with treatment as close as possible to the battlefield. Building on this observation, King Albert 1st, wishing to stay with his army, resides at La Panne (close to French territory) and asks Antoine Depage to set up a major surgery ambulance in this community close to the front. Thanks to the efforts of the Queen and her entourage, Antoine Depage is provided with a hotel that he can arrange as he likes, in order to create an efficient hospital. Six weeks are required for him to transform the Hôtel de L'Océan into a hospital. As such, on 21 December, the Ocean Ambulance is operational. From 1915 to 1918, Dr. Depage will reside at this site, to which he devotes all of his energy in order to make it as efficient as possible, such that this facility will become a reference model for the Allies.