Monthly Archives: February 2011

On Historian Outreach–The Invitational Blog

by Thomas L Snyder

One of this Society’s current themes is historian outreach.  We encourage our members–the people who do the heavy lifting of historical research, study and writing–to get out and about to meet and talk with their public. We believe this is especially important for academics who labor in public universities, because their paychecks come from the taxes the public pay. The Society recently established a Speakers Bureau as a means to this end.

Last week, Professor Bill Eamon from New Mexico State University Las Cruces wrote in the listserve L-MEDMED:

As a believer in the principle that scholars should try to share their work with a broad readership, I’ve recently begun blogging about medieval and Renaissance science and medicine. Initially this was an activity recommended by my publisher and agent to get the word out about my latest book; now it’s more of a writing exercise to keep my muscles in tone between book projects. But recently I’ve noticed that the exercise has, in fact, engaged thousands of readers that I never imagined my scholarly work would reach. I don’t know if others on the list have had a similar experience but I’d be interested in learning about other blogs and, in general, if you have opinions about blogs in our field. I’ve noticed, in particular, that younger scholars and recent PhDs have taken to blogging (in some cases with very good blogs) as an entry into the world of scholarly publishing. 

For those interested, my blog is called “Labyrinth of Nature” and can be found on my web site: Recent posts include “The Aquavitae Brothers,” “The Monk Who Loved to Eat Toads,” a piece on medieval and Renaissance wound balms, and, most recently, “The Professors of Secrets and Their Books.”

Here we have an electronic version of the Speakers Bureau–the blog. With a nod to Dr Eamon, I offer an idea to our readers:

The Society for the History of Navy Medicine Invitational Blog

Here’s an invitation for you to write 400 – 600 words about your current research, a book you are working on, your current or ongoing passion, or your commentary on some pertinent subject. Email it to me with a short bio. I’ll be happy to publish your posting so long as it is related to the history of medicine of navies or of the maritime environment. I’ll feature your name prominently in the byline.  Our goals: edify our public while promoting our work. A “win-win” if I ever saw one.

Send your material to me at

©2011 by Thomas L Snyder

Declining Academic Standards Redux–The Padded Mental Funnel

by Thomas L Snyder

My son James is a widely published commentator / reviewer in international and security affairs, law and politics. When I ask him why he doesn’t go for a PhD, he answers that he simply is not interested in focusing on a narrow aspect of some area of study when he can now think broadly across disciplines. I think that PhD work would force him into a sort of mental funnel which he finds abhorrent.

Yet this mental funneling is a trend that is gaining momentum in today’s academy, not just at the PhD level, but in undergraduate programs. Former Congresswoman Heather Wilson, in a January Washington Post Op Ed piece, remarked on what she sees as “an undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago.” The result, she says, is that “high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.” Ms Wilson, an Air Force Academy graduate and Rhodes Scholar, believes “[t]his narrowing has resulted in a curiously unprepared and superficial pre-professionalism” that she attributes to parental pressure for colleges to prepare students solely for the post-college job search.

This month, an NPR piece entitled “A Lack of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrift’ in College” featured the just-published book “Academic Drift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses” by academics Richard Arum and Josipa Roska. The authors report on their longitudinal study of critical thinking and writing skills of 2300 undergraduate students in 24 universities over four years. They found that the majority of students advanced little or none in these skills. Moreover, the students on average studied 50% fewer hours than did undergraduates several decades ago. Yet their grades were pretty good. The authors attribute this,  at least in part, to the system of class evaluations where undemanding and entertaining instructors garner higher ratings than their academically more demanding colleagues. The incentive for professors is to go easy. The mental funnels, it seems, have become padded so minds (and egos?) don’t get bruised.

How does all this fit in to the environment our Society seeks to create? Our Society, like the Society for the History of Medicine, the Society for Military History and others, is a “hybrid” society that welcome scholars inhabiting different and often quite disparate disciplines. Their scholarly work requires them to think, and, we hope, to collaborate across disciplines–in our case those of the practice of the medical arts, the history of medicine, military history and possibly others, like the history of architecture, or sociological history.

Yet some hybrids see a continual, subtle pressure to “professionalize”, i.e., to become ever more the realm solely of PhD historians. This, I believe, is a bad idea and a trend we should rigorously resist. As I see it, hybrid scholarly societies like our own should be bulwarks against the funneling of historical thought. In medical history, the practitioners can teach the academics and vice versa. The scholarly product of this ongoing collaboration will be richer, more supple, more nuanced. Let us have no mental funnels, padded or otherwise!

©2011 by Thomas L Snyder

Independent Duty Corpsmen

by Thomas L Snyder

I had my introduction to Independent Duty Corpsmen when I served as Squadron Medical Officer in Destroyer Squadron Fifteen. Each ship in the squadron was served by one IDC and an assistant. I was the only physician for the squadron of six ships which usually operated hundreds of miles from my position on the squadron flagship, so these men were the sole source of medical expertise for their crews. On one occasion, while the flagship was involved in an underway replenishment (during which, the ship, sailing a parallel course with a supply vessel while supplies–food, shells for the big guns, even fuel via hoses–were taken aboard) we took a 30 degree roll. This resulted in a man being swept overboard–he was promptly found and fished back aboard unhurt–and several men injured by shifting pallets of food and bullets. The IDC and his assistant went quickly and efficiently to work, expertly assessing, then caring for the injured. I needed only to stand back and watch, serving as a consultant when (not) needed.

Independent Duty Corpsmen are specially selected (for their intelligence, maturity and judgment) enlisted sailors, already experienced as medical technicians (corpsmen), who receive training to serve–often in the absence of a medical officer (doctor). When serving independently, they are designated the Medical Department Representative for their commands.

Non-officer medical technicians can be seen serving their fellow soldiers at least as early as the forepart of the current millennium, when soldiers specially trained at bandaging war wounds–the capsarii–received assignment to Roman army and navy units.(1) Some of the capsarii worked independently, being the first to provide care to soldiers injured in battle before being transferred back to legionary hospitals, where their care would be undertaken by military physicians, the medici.(2) With the collapse of the Roman Empire and subsequent loss of Roman practical knowledge, the educated medici were the first to disappear, then the wound dressers. Post Roman German armies used “wise women”–wives of soldiers and other untrained female camp followers to care for their wounded.(3) Early in the Crusades, there appear to have been no trained wound dressers, with soldiers and even knights learning and applying a sort of buddy care for wounds, while senior officers, the nobility, usually had their own private surgeons. It does appear that a more well-organized system of care for the wounded and sick evolved from the late twelfth century forward.(4) The Byzantines preserved and applied Roman medical skills and methods*, and the Arabs imported much of this knowledge. Other than for their service in Arab army mobile hospitals, where they served under direction of military surgeons, I can find no evidence for independently serving capsarii equivalents through the middle ages.

Most ships of the Elizabethan Royal Navy carried a surgeon and his surgeon’s mate. While the surgeon normally brought with him specific training in the surgical arts, the mate typically learned the work on the job. These men often received “field promotions”–a prerogative of the ship’s Captain–to replace a surgeon who died or jumped ship.(5) The surgeon’s mate was pretty much a fixture in the Royal Navy until the 19th century, when a specifically enlisted rating of Berth Attendant came into being.(6) In the American Navy, medical assistants were selected from the crew. Called loblolly boys, their job originally was to keep filled the sand buckets intended to supply antislip material to the bloody floor of the ship’s cockpit so that the surgeon laboring there wouldn’t slip and fall. The U S Navy Hospital Corps officially came into existence in 1898. During World War I, Navy Corpsmen served with distinction with Marine Corps forces in Europe. During World War II, these men, now joined, late in the war, by enlisted women–Corps WAVES–ministered to the needs of injured and sick sailors and marines. By 1944, schools to train corpsmen for independent shipboard duty and duty with the Marine Corps had sprung into existence, establishing for the first time, officially, the notion of duty independent and away from the immediate supervision of a medical officer.(7)

Today, specially trained corpsmen serve outside the direct supervision of physicians in ships, with Marines in the field, in submarines on several-month-long cruises and with special forces troops in “high risk environments”.


(1)  Gabriel, Richard, and Karen S Metz, A History of Military Medicine, Vol 1, Westwood, Connecticut, Westwood Press, 1992, p. 167.  Gabriel and Metz have been my “bible” as a general history of military medicine.  The work is now nearly 20 years old and does seem a bit dated.  Yet look as I may, I’ve yet to find a comprehensive replacement.

(2)  Risse, Guenter B, Mending Bodies, Saving Souls–A History of Hospitals, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 52.

(3)  Gabriel and Metz, op. cit., p186-7.

(4)  Mitchell, Piers D, Medicine in the Crusades, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p 68.  Mitchell is, however, uncertain whether there was an organized system of field medical technicians or “if new soldiers just learnt the basics of wound care from their more experienced comrades.”  He is inclined to believe the latter. p. 178.

(5)  Keevil, J J, Medicine and the Navy:  1200-1900, Vol 1, London, E & S Livingstone, 1957, p141 (and others).

(6)  Lloyd, Christopher and Jack L S Coulter, Medicine and the Navy: 1200-1900, Vol 4, London, E & S Livingstone, 1963, p61 ff.

(7)  Naval Education and Training Professional Development and Technology Center, Hospital Corpsman NAVEDTRA 14295, Appendix I.  This document is published in pdf format and is available for purchase as “14295pdf” from Integrated Publishing, Inc at, accessed 11 February 2011.

*  The famed American military medical historian Fielding Garrison famously remarked that “Byzantium was…a kind of cold storage plant for the remains of Greek culture, or as Allbutt puts it:  ‘The chief monuments of learning were stored in Byzantium until Western Europe was fit to take care of them.'”  Garrison, Fielding H, Notes on the History of Military Medicine, Washington, Association of Military Surgeons, 1922, p 78.

©2011 by Thomas L Snyder

Historical Outreach

by Thomas L Snyder

In my experience, the vast bulk of professional–by which I mean here “academic”–historians are content to remain cloistered within walls of Ivy, researching and writing for themselves and the relatively small circle of people who share their interests and specialty(s). Here in California, where I venture to say the majority of academics  (those who labor in the University of California, California State University and Community College systems) are taxpayer paid, it is a rare thing indeed to see any of them, as historians, speaking to those people who pay the bills. “Public” history, it seems, is left to historical societies, the ramparts of which are usually manned by elderly guardians of the local historic record–enthusiastic to be sure, well intentioned for certain, but amateurs and history buffs at best. Result:  the public is served a potentially faulty brew rife with inaccuracy, myth, legend and misinterpretation.

Yet the public want to know their history. For example, just within the past couple of weeks, I–absolutely an amateur and unabashed buff–spoke at a local museum to 30 stalwarts who came out on an NFL playoff day to learn a bit of their local history. Today I talked to hometown Rotarians and had a very young woman come up afterwards to thank me for giving her a view of a past she’d never even thought about before. The need is there. The desire is there. How can we fulfill the popular need and meet the popular desire with a quality product?

First, there’s the social media. Retired Rear Admiral Jay deLoach has brought the Naval History and Heritage Command into the 21st century big time:  you will see several Tweets and Facebook entries per day from his organization. Navy history has a big story to tell, and, apparently, plenty of resources to tell it! Not only will you see the text messages, but Jay’s people also post copious amounts of video (via You Tube) material. The same can be said for Navy Medicine, though postings from that quarter seem to be oriented more toward current events and / or PR, pure and simple.

Navy medicine’s Office of the Historian for four years produced and widely distributed a bimonthly electronic digest–The Grog Ration–of historical articles, oddities and announcements. This effort is currently undergoing revision, but it will, when it returns, serve a very useful role of getting the word out, in freely accessible textual form, about the history of U S Navy medicine.

These efforts are wonderful to be sure:  they get the history out from behind the Ivy walls.  But the historians are still left inside.  We need to get them outside the walls, too.  There they can interact with their public and find out just how they can best serve the history needs of the community, while at the same time be energized by the mostly positive reactions they will encounter.  To help accomplish this movement of historians to the street, today I floated to the 150 members of the Society for the History of Navy Medicine the idea that we establish a Speakers Bureau.  I am going to propose that each of our members work up a 30 to 60 minute talk on whatever subject presses their buttons, but oriented to a lay audience.  Then I’m going to ask that they promote the talk in their local communities in the name of the Society, and that they recommend a modest, voluntary honorarium to be given to the Society, the money to be applied to the Graduate Student Travel Grant Program that we established last year.  Everyone benefits:  the public, our historians (who get to talk about what they really love), and a new generation of scholars.  We’ll see how it goes…

Like the idea?  Hate it?  Post your comment or email me at

©2011 by Thomas L Snyder