Monthly Archives: January 2011

Society for the History of Navy Medicine Selects Candidates for Naval Academy History Symposium

The Society for the History of Navy Medicine’s Paper Selection Board (Harry Langley, Professor of History Emeritus, Catholic University, Washington, DC and Annette Finley-Croswhite, Professor of History and Chair Emerita, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA) have spoken.  They selected six of the sixteen papers submitted to them for inclusion in two panels that we today proposed for the Naval Academy History Symposium in September.

  • For Panel 1–“From Guantanamo to Puerto Rico to Project X231:  Medical Ethics, Biomedical Experimentation and Archeology”  The papers are “Welcome to Isolation! Understanding the first permanent quarantine station in 19th century Puerto Rico” by Paola A Schiappacasse, a PhD candidate at Syracuse University; “Germ Warfare:  Project X-231 and the Technological Challenge of Airborne Disease Control”, by Gerard J Fitzgerald, PhD, a visiting lecturer/scholar at the University of Virginia; and “Miliary Ethics and Military Duty:  The Role of Navy Physicians in the Force-Feeding of Guantanamo Bay Detainees”, by Raed Moustafa, a first year medical student at Boston University School of Medicine; Moustafa holds an MA and an MPH.
  • For Panel 2–“Health of Sailors”  The papers are “‘The most virulent case of Fever I have ever heard of’:  The Royal Navy, the Caribbean, and Yellow Fever, 1860-63”, by John Beeler, PhD, a professor of history at the University of Alabama; “Health of British Sailors stationed in the Caribbean during the American Revolution 1776-1783”, by Cori Convertito-Farrar, a graduate student at the University of Exeter in the UK; and “Suicide of an Admiral:  Its Impact on British Naval Operations in the West Pacific, 1854”, by Andrew Rath, a graduate student at McGill University, Montreal.

It is pleasing and exciting to note that four of the six paper proposals accepted are written by students (3 are graduate students, one is a medical student).  The Society is proud to offer financial support to any of the students whose papers are accepted for the Symposium.

Step one has been accomplished.  These proposed panels must now pass muster with Naval Academy planners.  Naval Academy officials indicate that their announcement will come in early March.

Encourage the Students If We Want to Survive

by Thomas L Snyder

As I’ve written before, the Society for the History of Navy Medicine is a unique double-hybrid organization in that it combines the interests of military history and the history of medicine with the interests of professional and academic historians.  In this kind of scholarly zwitterion lies a sometime uneasy relationship between the practitioners of an art (in our case, both the military and medical arts) and the arts’ historians.  In a February 2010 posting on this blog, I cited arguments that the historians need the practitioners for legitimacy and the practitioners need the historians for academic rigor.  I believe that the healthy future of such hybrid organizations and the disciplines they represent lies, as with all things, in their ability to attract new–meaning mostly younger–talent.  Yet the prospects for this continued renewal seem to be at risk.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing and gnashing-of-teeth in the military history community these days about how little respect military historians get in the academic world.  Commentators on military history list serves frequently complain about a generally “anti-military” tone in history departments–especially in the “prestige” academy–that makes for an environment unfriendly to the advancement of their discipline.   Statistics on the declining number of professorates held by military historians seem to bear out a waning interest in, and influence of, military history and historians in the academe.  The announced (in April 2010) closure of the discipline’s British beacon, the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, simply adds weight to the impression of a discipline under siege.  What’s important, and a bit worrisome, is that the academe is where our future historians are “born”.

The study of medical history has similarly seen more optimistic days.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this discipline was dominated by MDs with amateurs’ passion for the history of their art.  By the mid-20th century, MD/PhD giants like Henry Sigerist and Owsei Temkin came on the scene; they became a bridge to the more complete PhD-transformation of the discipline that we see today.   And this is all to the good of our field.  Nevertheless, the continued vitality of the discipline depends upon maintaining vigorous practitioner involvement.  But this MD component is in danger of disappearing.  A few years ago, the American Association for the History of Medicine’s annual Physicians’ Breakfast that I attended felt like a circling of the wagons as MDs and recently minted MD/PhDs argued passionately that MDs really do have legitimate role in the history of medicine and in organizations like the AAHM.  My limited but entirely congenial contact with that organization gives me the impression that the MDs are indeed being squeezed into an ever smaller corner.   Add the fact that medical schools are loathe to require a medical history component in an already necessarily overfull curriculum, and it’s easy to see why there’s an ever-smaller  pull for practitioners of the art to take a meaningful interest in the history of the art.

Recognizing the truism that “money talks”, the Society for the History of Navy Medicine last year announced a Travel Grant Program that would award $750 to a graduate student, medical student or nursing student whose paper was accepted for delivery at the Society’s Fifth Annual Meeting and Papers Session.  Of the 16 submissions we received by our 14 January deadline, no fewer than 6 were from students:  four graduate students of history, a medical student and a graduate nursing student.  It’s heartening to know that these papers are very competitive, and the Society may be happily digging deep to fund travel for more than one of them.  It’s just one small step, but by combining the small steps of several groups, departments and individuals, the prospects for advancing our discipline need not have to look so bleak.

©2011 by Thomas L Snyder

The Nurses of Naval Hospital Cañacao, RP

by Thomas L Snyder

The Cañacao Peninsula juts into Manila Bay, and is an ideal location for mooring and repairing ships.  Originally a point of commerce between Chinese merchants and resident Spanish and Filipinos, the peninsula emerged as a shipbuilding and repair area, ultimately housing a Spanish navy base.

In 1871, the Spanish established a naval hospital on the peninsula.  When the Americans occupied the Philippines after the 1898 war with Spain, the hospital fell under United States Navy administration.  U S Naval Hospital Cañacao served sailors of U S Naval forces in China and the western Pacific until December 1941, when, as a result of damage caused by Japanese air attacks on U S bases in the Philippines, patients and medical staff moved to joint Army and Navy medical facilities in Manila.

As the untenable status of Manila became clear, General MacArthur declared it an open city and, by New Years Eve 1941, all Army personnel, including 80 Army nurses, were evacuated to the Bataan Peninsula and then to Corregidor.  The Navy nurses, for reasons unclear, were not part of this evacuation plan, and so were left to care for several thousand U S and allied prisoners of war and civilians in makeshift hospitals located first in Santa Scholastica School, later at the University of Santo Tomas and finally, at an agriculture school in Los Baños.

Navy nurse Dorothy Still Danner, in her oral history (Navy Medicine 83, No 3 (May-June 1992), said that while conditions were spartan at Los Baños, there was enough food largely because their location at the agricultural school permitted them to grow fresh vegetables.  The navy nurses hid medications, especially quinine used against malaria so the Japanese would not filch it, and otherwise used their ingenuity to care for their patients.

Late in 1943, however, conditions changed.  Previously administered by Japanese civilians, the facility came under control of the Army–and in particular, a Supply Corps officer by the name of Konishi, who was later tried, convicted and executed for war crimes, charges that arose at least in part from his treatment of the people at Los Baños.

By March 1944, as American forces advanced after invading the Philippines, the food situation became quite bad.  As a result, many internees and staff, including the nurses, suffered from such nutritional illnesses as beriberi.

On 9 January 1945, Japanese personnel abandoned the Los Baños area (they would return temporarily a week later), and the camp was declared “Camp Freedom”.  Liberation certain came on 23 Feb 1945 when American paratroopers and infantry arrived in force.

Nurse Danner recalls that soon after liberation, the nurses were feted in Admiral Kinkaid’s headquarters.

Eleven Navy Nurse POWs

Eleven Cañacao Nurses After Liberation

But they couldn’t eat the huge steak dinners they were served because “our stomaches had shrunk so much”.  The Army awarded all eleven Navy nurses of Cañacao (later, Los Baños) the Bronze Star; the Navy added a gold star in lieu of second award on the same day.  The Eleven of Cañacao were Goldia O’Haver, Eldene Paige, Dorothy Still, Mary Rose Harrington, Mary Chapman, Edwina Todd, Susier Pitcher, Margaret Nash, Bertha Evans, Helen Gorzelanski and Chief Nurse, Laura Cobb.

©2011 by Thomas L Snyder

Women in the U S Navy Medical Department

by Thomas L Snyder

New Years Day marks the commissioning, in 1950, of the first female medical officer in the United States Navy.  On this date, Mary T Sproul was appointed a Lieutenant, junior grade.  And this is all I know about Dr Sproul.  The internet provides us no further information about this Navy pioneer, though ten years later, a Commander in the Medical Service Corps with the identical name, is listed as author of a paper the use of frozen red blood cells, published in the Archives of Surgery (Arch Surg. 1960;81(1):151-154).  Could this be the very same Mary T Sproul?  I hope to answer this mystery in the near future.

While four members of the Sisters of Mercy served as nurses aboard the Navy hospital ship Red Rover in the Civil War, it was not until the Spanish America War in 1898 that four women (three were medical students at Johns Hopkins, one a pre-medical student at MIT) were “regularly commissioned as nurses and so rated in the records of the Navy Department”.    These women left this voluntary service at the end of hostilities, and all went on to practice medicine as civilians.  There the matter lay until Congress approved the establishment of the Navy Nurse Corps, in 1908.

The service of women enlisted in the Medical Department came with the establishment of the rating of “Yeoman (F)” in the Naval Shore Defense Reserve in 1917.  These women were recruited to provide secretarial skills and to free up enlisted men for service in combat roles.  According to a World War II Navy press release, of 11,275 Yeoman(F)s

Yeoman (F)s--"Yeomanettes"--at Mare Island California, 1919

on active service at the end of that war, five had “enlisted in the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, served with hospital units in France”.  The record does not state if these women worked with patients, or provided valuable clerking skills.

Women enlisted serving in direct patient care roles appears to date from 1943, when WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) with prior medical experience were introduced into the service.  The appointment of women to the Navy Hospital Corps had to await permissive legislation, in the form of Public Law 625.  Hospital Corpsman First Class Ruth Flora receives that distinction.

It wasn’t until 1952 that women were commissioned in the Medical Service Corps, five years after Congress approved the establishment of the fifth “Corps” of the Navy Medical Department (the others are Medical, Dental, Nurse–all officers, and Hospital–enlisted personnel).

©2011 by Thomas L Snyder