History “Changes” — A Lesson From Science: The First Surgeon Appointed to the United States Navy

History, like Science, is, or should be, in a state of constant change as old information is refined in the face of new discovery. I experienced this very kind of change this morning.

Sometimes, when I’m at a loss for a subject for these ramblings, I google “This Day in Naval History” and I’m rewarded with a link to the (U S) Naval History and Heritage Command’s “Dates in American Naval History” page. There, for instance, I learned that 9 March marks the date, in 1798, the “[a]ppointment of the first surgeon U. S. Navy, George Balfour”.

A google of “Naval surgeon George Balfour” yields several repeats of this one line commentary and a smattering of other material, including the mention of Balfour in a letter from Hugh Blair Grigsby, Chancellor of the College of William & Mary to Dr Robert Tunstall of Norfolk, VA, April 21st, 1876. Grigsby states that Balfour, born in Hampton, VA “about 1773″ served a regular apprenticeship of seven years “as was the order of the time, in the offices of Doctors Taylor and Hansford, the elder.” He entered the army “and was with General Anthony Wayne when that hero died in 1796, at Presque Isle. He afterwards entered the Navy, and in 1800, having received from the administration of the elder Adams the appointment of surgeon of the Marine Hospital at Norfolk, resigned his naval commission, and settled himself in Norfolk…”

But this is where history, as regards the Navy’s “first” surgeon, has “changed”:

With scant other material concerning this presumed Naval medical precedent-setter available on the internet, I turned to my trusty copy of Professor Harold Langley’s A History of Medicine in the Early U. S. Navy (Johns Hopkins Press 1995). In Chapter 2, “The Quasi-War with France”, Professor Langley carefully lays out the chronology of the provision of medical care for the now-famed Six Frigates being built and commissioned as the nucleus of the newly resurgent U S Navy. Inasmuch as the frigate United States was launched in May, 1797, its Captain, John Berry requested information regarding obtaining the services of a Medical Officer. The War Department ordered Dr George Gillaspy, then surgeon to the Second Infantry, to Philadelphia for this purpose. Gillaspy identified himself as “Acting Surgeon, Frigate United States” in late fall of 1797. He was officially ordered aboard the United States some time after 30 August 1797. On the other hand, according to Langley, Surgeon Balfour took up his duties aboard Constellation “in February or early March 1798″. Gillaspy is surely then the “first surgeon appointed to the U. S. Navy”.

According to Professor Langley, “of the 12 surgeons appointed to the Navy in 1798, 2 died, 1 committed suicide and 2 resigned. Gillaspy, the first naval surgeon appointed, apparently made only one cruise. He returned to Philadelphia, formed a partnership with Surgeon’s Mate Joseph C Strong, and began supplying the navy with medicines.” He apparently gave up his pay and rations early in 1799, but kept his rank until he was discharged from service in April 1801. Balfour stayed in the service until 1804 when, facing orders to sea, he resigned his commission. All of the surgeons appointed in 1798 were gone by March 1805. Sic transit gloria mundi.

©2012 Thomas L Snyder

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