31 August marks the establishment by Congress of the U S Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in 1842. Up to this time, all aspects of Naval operations were handled out of the office of the Secretary of the Navy, or by a general Board of Commissioners. Increasingly sophisticated technology however, called for concentration of expertise in discrete areas, and so Congress created the “Bureau System” for managing the Navy’s activities. These concentrated expertise under specified directorates like the Bureau of Yards and Docks (Civil Engineering), Construction, Equipment and Repairs (Ship Building), Ordnance and Hydrography (weapons), and Medicine and Surgery (health care).
The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BuMed), the central administration for Navy medicine, was given responsibility for all medicines, hospitals and their furnishings, surgical instruments, the care of Navy and Marine Corps patients and all contracting and procurement related to these functions. Until 1871, the sole title of the head of the Bureau was “Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery”. In 1871 Congress conferred the additional title of Surgeon General of the Navy.
The first major challenge to face the Bureau was the Civil War, when the number of medical officers nearly quadrupled and hospitals at Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Washington DC opened in older facilities or enlarged, and temporary hospitals sprung into existence in New Bern, NC, Beaufort and Port Royal South Carolina and Pensacola. The Naval Hospital at Norfolk, VA, lost to the Confederates early in the war, reopened for Union forces upon its recapture in 1862. Other hospitals opened in Mound City, Illinois (later moved to Memphis) and New Orleans. The first Navy hospital ship–the Red Rover–saw service to Naval forces on the Mississippi. In addition, Bureau Chief William Whelan established the Naval Laboratory in Brooklyn, under the direction of Surgeon Benjamin Bache and Edward R Squibb. Squibb was responsible for creating a system for producing medicaments of reliable quality.
World War I saw a five fold increase in hospital beds for the Navy, and an equivalent increase in personnel. In addition to overseeing the expansion of several existing hospitals in the continental United States and in Hawaii, the Bureau undertook to construct or lease space for two hospitals in France and at least one in the United Kingdom. Naval authorities tasked Surgeon General William C Breasted with developing and manufacturing an effective gas mask system, a project that achieved success. Finally, the Bureau began the first faltering steps in establishing the science of aviation medicine in the Navy.
BuMed faced its largest challenges by far during World War II. The medical department grew tremendously, with 10,000 physicians entering the service from civilian life. Hospital ships were built, and with Marines deployed in large numbers throughout the Pacific Theater of War, the Navy hospital establishment, both at home and overseas, grew immensely. In California alone, the Navy built new hospitals in Long Beach, Santa Margarita, Oakland, Shoemaker (now Dublin) and San Leandro and expanded standing facilities at Mare Island, San Diego and Treasure Island. In addition, in California alone, the Navy opened convalescent hospitals in hotels at Santa Cruz, Yosemite National Park and Norco, and in abandoned Army hospitals in Banning and Beaumont. A rapidly expanding submarine force required the Bureau to undertake training of physicians in hyperbaric medicine; the aircraft carrier Navy called for a large increase in doctors trained in aviation medicine. Under Surgeon General Ross T McIntire’s leadership the Bureau also developed research programs to find effective insect repellents to fight malarial mosquitoes in the South Pacific, occupational medicine research seeking means for improving the atmosphere in submarines, nutritional improvements for shipboard and combat personnel, development of flash-burn prevention techniques, improvement in oxygen delivery systems for aviators, research in tropical diseases and a vast variety of other areas of inquiry.
Today the Bureau oversees the care of Navy and Marine Corps personnel at home and in deployment around the world. Its research facilities concentrate in problems of infectious disease, combat casualty care, and the care of people serving in environments unique to the navy and Marine Corps–on, above and below the sea surface, in cold, tropical, high altitude and desert locations.