75 years on from the Coconut Grove nightclub fire: The birth of modern burns care

Dr Steven Cook1, Dr Bernard Carney1

1Women’s And Children’s Hospital, Adelaide, Norwood, Australia


75 years ago on the 28th of November 1942, the incredibly popular Coconut Grove nightclub in Boston, Massachusetts was transformed into an uncontrolled inferno. In what is estimated to be less than 20 minutes from the first sighting of smoke, 492 people were dead and another 166 injured in what is still to this day the 2nd deadliest nightclub fire worldwide.
The burn victims flooded into Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston City Hospital which provided the first real world test of the burns research commenced at Massachusetts general in the wake of the Pearl Harbour attack the year earlier. Lead by Dr Francis Daniels Moore and Dr Oliver Cope new techniques of burns care were implemented including doing away with tannic acid paint dressings used in World War I and instead dressing the burns in petroleum jelly coated guaze with the aim of keeping the patients as sterile as possible. Fluid resuscitation was trialled and the newly developed blood bank was used. The burns patients were also among the first humans to be treated with the new antibiotic of the time, penicillin. Shortly after the Coconut Grove fire 32 litres of the antibiotic in the form of culture liquid in which the Penicillium mold were sent to the two hospitals from the Merck company. Penicillin played a pivotal role in the 100% survival rate at Massachusetts General via combating staphylococcus bacteria, which typically infect skin grafts.


Steven Cook is an unaccredited registrar in Plastics and reconstructive surgery at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital and Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Adelaide. He has a keen interest in Burns surgery and Paediatric patients.


ANZBA is a not for profit organisation and the peak body for health professionals responsible for the care of the burn injured in Australia and New Zealand. ANZBA encourages higher standards of care through education, performance monitoring and research.

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