Skip to main content

Douglas Jolly

Described by US medical historian David Adams as ‘one of the most notable war surgeons of the 20th century’, Douglas Waddell Jolly was born in Cromwell, Central Otago in 1904 and graduated from Otago Medical School in 1929. There he became an active member of the Student Christian Movement and its non-sectarian Christian socialism would remain a guiding principle of his life.

After working as a house surgeon in public hospitals, Jolly left for London in 1932 to study for specialist qualifications in surgery. Soon after the Spanish Civil War broke out in mid-1936, he abandoned his studies to join a British volunteer medical unit in Spain. He was given the rank of captain in the Republican Army and instructed to lead a 12-person mobile surgical unit facing fierce attacks around the city of Madrid. For the next two years he was present at many of the most crucial and devastating battles of the civil war. Operating impartially on troops and civilians, he developed a system of mobile emergency surgery that later became standard both in war- and peace-time.

During the final Republican offensive in the summer of 1938, a large emergency hospital was set up in a huge cave alongside the Ebro River. Jolly wrote,

For weeks and months flights of 50 to 80 heavy bombers bombarded the Republican communication lines almost daily; yet... Even the most serious abdominal wounds rarely failed to reach the operating table and… almost half survived, whereas in the First World War only one third lived.

For his work under these conditions, Jolly was awarded the Republican Army’s Medalla del Ebro.

His colleagues on the Spanish battlefront regarded him as one of the great figures of that war.  A fellow surgeon, Dr Moises Broggi, recalls him as a ‘top quality surgeon who was very popular with the Spanish’, while the British doctor Sir Archibald Cochrane thought he was ‘the most important volunteer to come from the British Commonwealth’.

Jolly left Spain along with all other foreign volunteers in late 1938. His demobilisation papers described him as,

Excellent as a surgeon, courageous and totally reliable… He has always wanted to operate as close as possible to the firing line. His relations with the comrades are magnificent. Although not affiliated to any organization, he is an excellent anti-fascist.

He first returned to New Zealand and made a nationwide speaking tour to bring attention to the situation of Republican refugees and International Brigades prisoners. He then went back to Britain where he recorded his experiences in a medical manual, Field Surgery in Total War, published in October 1940. It became required reading in the US Army Medical Service during the Second World War. According to one US authority, C.E. Welch, Jolly’s methods ‘undoubtedly contributed more to the saving of lives of patients with abdominal wounds than any other single factor’. In Korea and Vietnam the mobile hospitals used by the US Army and its allies were based directly on the mobile surgical units that Jolly described in his book.

In the early stages of the Second World War it was even proposed to set up mobile surgical units for New Zealand’s home defence use. That idea was soon abandoned but was put into practice with New Zealand forces overseas. In 1940 Arthur Sims, a wealthy New Zealander based in London, offered to provide and equip a mobile surgical unit for use in the North African campaign. The unit saw action at Sidi Oman on the Libyan border until it was disbanded in February 1942.

Jolly himself joined Britain’s Royal Army Medical Corps and was assigned to Tobruk with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He was later transferred to Italy as senior medical officer of the New Zealand Hospital in Naples. For his service in the Second World War he was awarded a military OBE, the citation referring to his ‘untiring zeal and quiet but thorough methods’.

After the war Jolly never gained the surgical qualification he had abandoned in order to volunteer for Spain. He married Englishwoman Jessica Kain and they lived in the village of West Horsley, Surrey. In 1951 he joined the staff of Queen Mary’s Hospital at Roehampton, near London, an internationally renowned orthopaedic centre, and eventually became its chief medical officer. Dr Douglas Jolly died after a long illness in 1983.

By Mark Derby

Further information

  • A. Cochrane with M. Blythe, One Man’s Medicine, The Memoir Club, 1989
  • Character report on D. Jolly and other non-Communist British volunteers in International Brigades, 12 December 1938, Russian Centre for Preservation and Study of Recent Historical Documents, Moscow
  • C. E. Welch, ‘War wounds of the abdomen’, New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 237, 1947
  • D. Jolly, Field Surgery in Total War, Hamish Hamilton Medical Books, 1941
  • David B. Adams, ‘Douglas Waddell Jolly as a pioneer in the surgical treatment of trauma’, Surgery, Gynecology and Obstetrics, September 1990, vol. 171
  • Lt. Col. D. W. Jolly, military service record, Army Personnel Centre, MS Support Division, Glasgow, UK
  • Mark Derby (ed.), Kiwi Compañeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War, Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 2009
  • New Zealanders in the Spanish Civil War (
How to cite this page

Douglas Jolly, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated