U S Naval Medical Corps Insignia–A Brief History (Part I)

In modern times, medical officers of the world’s Navies are identified by distinctive insignia. For instance, the British Royal Navy identify their doctors by placing blood-red color between strips of rank-indicating gold lace:   

  The German Navy utilize the recognizably “medical” staff of Aesculapius to designate medical officers.

While I was unable to procure a reliable image of Russian medical rank insignia, the Russians appear to pretty universally  designate medical personnel with the Bowl of Hygeia,  , here represented by a shoulder patch.

The French Navy identify medical officers by a combination of a unique, Aesculapius staff-like “device” and scarlet stripes in the rank lace: 

I searched in vain for any rank or corps indicators for the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy. I will post such to this blog if I do find them. Dear reader, if you can guide me to a source for this information, please leave a comment at the end of this blog. Thanks!

The U S Navy also have a unique “Corps Device”–displayed above the rank lace on the sleeve, on the left collar of work uniform shirts, or at the peak of the shoulder boards–to designate medical officers:    But it took nearly 100 years to get to this particular iteration.

The earliest extant prescription for a U S Navy medical officer identifying device is actually for a “club of esculapius” under live oak embroidery on the uniform’s standing collar, thus: . Originally called for in a 1 May 1830 Secretary of the Navy General Order, it was deleted in 1832 by a Naval General Order which directed “The serpent and staff are to be removed from the collar of the full dress of the surgeons and assistant surgeons, and a branch of live oak is to be substituted”. (1) A Naval General Order of 24 December 1834 again specifies “a branch of live oak to be embroidered on each side of the collar”, thus: .

The fact that the live oak specification was repeated after 2 years suggests that it may not have been universally adopted in the fleet. The branch goes missing officially in the 1841 “Regulations of the Uniform and Dress of the Navy”,.(2) It seems likely that these 1841 Regulations simply acceded to general practice in the field.

Despite the variation on the theme, I think we can see the “drift” here: we are heading toward an oaken future… I’ll continue the story in the next blog.

(1) Navy Department Library, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, Washington DC, Rare VC 303.E39 MSS Box 4, Published uniform regulations and changes to. 1781-1942

(2) Lankin, Kenneth M, “The History of the Navy Medical Corps Insignia: A Case for Diagnosis”, Military Medicine 115:11, pp 615-622, Figs. 4 and 3, described as “Collar insignia of pursers” and “Collar insignia of medical officers”, respectively, in Regulations for the Uniform and Dress of the Navy, 1841. This is available on-line (accessed 28 Aug 2011 and earlier) at http://www.bethesda.med.navy.mil/av/mcbb/Navy%20Medical%20Corps%20Insignia%20History.pdf

© 2011 Thomas L Snyder

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