Monthly Archives: March 2010

Naval History Blog

Today I discovered–thanks to a Facebook posting–a new blog on Naval History. It’s a joint effort from the Naval History and Heritage Command and the Naval Institute. It promises to be THE authoritative blog on naval history, and aims, as the 24 March introductory puts it, to be “an excursion into the most intriguing questions, theories and musings that continue to fascinate naval historians.”

Rear Admiral (ret) Jay DeLoach, the head of the Naval History and Heritage Command deserves a shoutout here. Since he came aboard, the organization seems to have really come alive. It has a thoroughly modern internet “look”. complete with an attractive–and active–presence on all major social networking tools including Facebook and Twitter. The blog highlights something else that may be new: a collaboration with that venerable institution, the Naval Institute.

Admiral DeLoach has said that Navy authorities, right up to the top of the chain of command, fully embrace the notion that it’s important to know our history as an institution and as a nation. He seems to be receiving the resources to make the mission of educating and promoting the history of the sea service a reality.

Of Libraries and Librarians

I’m spending a week at McGill University’s Osler Library researching the evolution of the great physician’s thought on military medicine. I came here with a pretty clear strategy on what material I wanted to look at, but on the very first day here in Montreal, the Osler Librarian, Mrs Pamela Miller, came up with at least five Osler sources I didn’t even know existed.

My story causes me to reflect on this unsung group of scholarly heroes–librarians and archivists–the people who live their lives cataloging and preserving the very materials we thrive on, finding for us those obscure veins of historical gold that make our work a bit more exciting and a lot more productive. Yes we acknowledge them in our “introductions”, but, somehow, that does seem nearly enough. Bring a special recognition to your librarian / archivist today.

Are Scholarly Standards Slipping?

Two recent news items raised questions about scholarly standards now extant in the historic community.

In the U S, publisher Henry Holt & Company recently announced that it was withdrawing from distribution Charles Pellegrino’s new book The Last Train From Hiroshima after the author acknowledged difficulty confirming whether two men quoted in the book actually existed. The author’s PhD was also called into question after the AP made inquiry of Pellegino’s putative university, which could find no evidence such a degree had ever been conferred. “The author of any work of nonfiction must stand behind its content. We must rely on our authors to answer questions that may arise as to the accuracy of their work and reliability of their sources. Unfortunately, Mr. Pellegrino was not able to answer the additional questions that have arisen about his book to our satisfaction,” the publisher stated

In the UK, Hugh Murphy, editor of the century-old journal of maritime history, The Mariner’s Mirror editorialized in November that “for this journal…standards of submissions, particularly from postgraduates and university lecturers, have seriously slipped.” Mr Murphy went on to note that the overall status of history as a separate discipline being taught in UK high schools and colleges is in serious jeopardy, and that historians (in particular maritime historians) have a serious duty to “raise their game” by raising standards, especially in MA courses, or “history” could well disappear entirely.

The message here should be clear to every one of us: we owe it to the field we love, and to those who will (we hope) read what we write, to demand of ourselves nothing but the highest standards of scholarly accuracy and academic rigor.

Lister’s Lessons of Antisepsis Appreciated in 1905

Very recently, the UK Royal Mail issued a series of postage stamps commemorating the work of ten famous UK scientists. Among these is Joseph Lister, a professor of surgery whose work, along with Louis Pasteur, was responsible for our present appreciation of wound “infection”, and its prevention. Their work was done in the last quarter of the 19th Century

Lister saw and taught that infection of wounds, both traumatic (as from combat) and surgical, came from outside the body. When Louis Pasteur suggested that exposing bacteria in wounds to a chemical solution would kill them and thereby prevent infection, Lister tried the idea, using a solution of carbolic acid (phenol). In his patients so treated, the death rate from infection dropped from 50% to 15%.

Lister’s technique, while very effective, was adopted only slowly by European surgeons. This was evident when a group of Russian sailors came under American care at Naval Hospital Canacao in the Philippines. Their ships had escaped the destruction wrought on the Russian fleet in the decisive Japanese victory at the Battle of Tsushima Strait, 27-28 May 1905.

Fleet Surgeon Clement Biddle described the situation thus: “Three Russian Cruisers have just come in after getting a disastrous beating in the Korean Straits. They slipped away, I hear, under cover of a mist, and no doubt thus saved themselves from capture this way. To make a long story short, a lot of the wounded [58 in all] from these vessels have just been landed for treatment…” and “These patients entered the hospital about eight days after the fight, their wounds untouched from the day the first dressings were applied. All were suppurating [draining pus] and those I saw, freely so. It quite reminded me of the condition of surgery before the advent of Listerism.[editor’s italics] It was apparent that no real attempts at antisepsis by the Russian Medical officer had been made. A rough first dressing was applied, and that’s all.”

Fleet Surgeon Biddle joined the Navy in 1878, just as Lister’s principles were beginning to be used. Biddle obviously had seen patients before “Listerism”, when wounds were not treated, and after, when wounds received antiseptic care. For him the recollection of “the bad old days” was vividly appreciated in these poor Russian sailors.

U S Navy Medical Corps Anniversary

This week (3 Mar to be precise) marks the founding of the Medical Corps of the United States Navy, in 1871. The US Navy was a relative latecomer to the establishment of a permanent corps of physicians to serve the health of sailors.

In the west, mention of physicians serving aboard naval vessels goes back to Homer. The Roman navy is believed to have paid its surgeons double the army pay to entice them to serve in the less prestigious military arm. During the late middle ages, the maritime republics of Italy routinely posted surgeons aboard ships, and during the Crusades, naval surgeons established shore based facilities for the care of injured and sick sailors. Medical Officers of Genoa and Venice were responsible for issuing health certificates to sailors of these navies; these officers also established port quarantine (from Italian quarantina giorni–“forty days”) procedures for prevention of imported contagion, especially plague.

In the modern era, the Spanish and French were early to adopt standing naval medical establishments, maintaining naval hospitals in colonial territories. While the British Royal Navy had surgeons aboard ships from the 15th century, they did not form what might be recognized as a formal medical corps until 1805, when for the first time, surgeons of the Navy were granted rank similar to other military officers, and a distinguishing uniform.

From the beginning, U S navy regulations specified a unique uniform for medical officers, but they were not granted rank-equivalence with their line officers until around the time of World War I. Prior to that, medical ranks were Assistant Surgeon, Passed Assistant Surgeon, Surgeon, Medical Inspector and Medical Director.

“Hybrid” Scholarly Societies

When I was attending a meeting of the American Association for the History of Medicine some years ago, I heard an MD / PhD say that in AAHM “the doctors give the historians legitimacy and the historians give the doctors academic rigor”. Famed medical historian Henry Sigerist, MD put it another way in his 1950 Foreward to volume one of what he planned to be an eight volume history of medicine: “[A] difficulty is presented by the fact that [medical history] is addressed to historians as well as to physicians. This means that [a writer is] obliged to make statements that are obvious to historians but not to physicians, and vice versa. A history of medicine is always both, a medical book and a history book.”

These observations, I think, catch the essence of societies that welcome, value, and encourage the collaboration of both professional historians and practitioners of the art about which the history is being written. AAHM is both a medical society and a medical society. Another is the Society for Military History, where military people are the practicing professionals; it is a society that is both military and historical. The Society for the History of Navy Medicine is a triple hybrid, combining the interests of people who research and write about the history of medicine as it relates to a naval environment and to those who live in it.