U S Naval Medical Corps Insignia–A Brief History, Part II

In an earlier post, I detailed this history up to the 1841 Uniform Regulations. Herewith, the story goes forward.

The 1841 Regulations made no specification for the standing collar decoration except to call for live oak to run around it:


In May 1847, the Navy Department once again called for a device specific to medical officers, a silver “MD” embroidered on shoulder strap; an epaulette with the same device was added; and three sprigs of live oak were to be placed in the blank area on the collar.(1) Rank devices accompanied the corps device.  Below, the insignia of a surgeon with more than 12 years’ service: 


 A new Navy Regulation in 1852 (2) abolished the gilt “MD” and instead called for “an olive sprig, one inch and a quarter long embroidered at the center” of the shoulder strap, shown here for a medical officer of less than 12 years’ service:    (b).  The same olive sprig was prescribed for the medical officer’s cap.

A November 1863 article in the Army and Navy Journal (3) reported the demise of the olive sprig. From thence, a fleet surgeon with more than 12 years’ service wore a silver eagle 2 inches long embroidered to the center of his shoulder strap,  (c)  ;

no corps device identified the shoulder straps of less senior surgeons; here, a shoulder strap for a surgeon with over 5 years, showing only a rank device, the spread oak leaf in silver:  (c).

Surgeons’ caps carried an “Oak leaf, 9/10 inch in length, embroidered in silver”.

General Order of the Navy Department No 90 of March 1869 (4) introduced a unique color placed between rank stripes on the sleeve to identify each corps; the medical corps received cobalt blue,  (d), here on the sleeve of a Medical Officer with the rank equivalent to Commander. This color scheme continued until 1883, when the color for medical officers was changed to dark maroon. The regulations (5) now specified this device to denote a medical corps officer: “a silver Maltese cross with a small maroon velvet Geneva cross in the center”. [Ed.: I have searched high and low for an image of this device, to no avail. Dear reader, if you come across one, please let me know how to procure it by leaving a comment below.]  

Finally, in 1897, the device by which we identify a medical corps officer, the spread oak leaf of dead gold with a silver acorn embroidered at the center, was prescribed.(6) The dark maroon color between rank stripes persisted:  (d).   Note that a collar device was also prescribed with the rank at the leading edge and the corps device just aft, worn on both sides of the standing collar.

Regulations of 1913 (7) prescribed that Medical reserve officers should sport crimson between sleeve rank stripes, in contrast to the dark maroon required for regular medical corps officers. No Corps device was called for upon the sleeve.

At last, in 1919 (8), the maroon color was eliminated, and the corps device placed above the rank stripes on both sleeves. Collar devices were simplified (some say complicated) in that now, the rank device was to be worn on the right collar, and the corps device on the left. This is the scheme that is used up to today (sleeve on left, shoulder board on right in illustration below):


Image Credits:
(a) Perrenot, Preston B, “United States Navy Grade Insignia, 1776-1852”, pdf, 2010. Available for purchase on line at http://www.docstoc.com/docs/27090993/UNITED-STATES-NAVY-GRADE-INSIGNIA-1776-1852
(b) National Archives and Records Administration (NARA 1), Records Group 45, Office of Naval Records and Library, Subject File, U. S. Navy, 1775-1910, O-1898. NU-Uniforms, U. S. Navy, Box No 358, File “No date NU-Uniforms, U.S. Navy, officers & men. Pictures, etc., collected together to show details of uniforms.”
(c) Ibid., O-1945, NU-Uniforms, U. S. Navy, Officers, and Men. Box No 359, File “Box#359/03”, 1862, Uniform for Officers of the United States Navy As Prescribed in the General Order of the Secretary of the Navy Dated July 31, 1862. 
(d) Perrenot, Preston C., “United States Navy Grade Insignia Since 1852”, pdf, 2010. Available for purchase on line at http://www.docstoc.com/docs/27091267/UNITED-STATES-NAVY-GRADE-INSIGNIA-SINCE-1852. I found one error is this publication:the medical corps device is shown the compiler’s illustration of the 1883-1897 insignia is the modern version–the spread gold oak leaf with silver acorn embroidered at its center–rather than the Maltese Cross with small maroon velvet Geneva cross at its center called for in Navy Uniform Regulations. The modern device was introduced in 1897. 
Text References:
(1)  Naval History and Heritage Command, Navy Department Library, RARE  VC 303 .E39 MSS Box 4, Published uniform regulations and changes to 1781-1942, File: William Edwards Collection    Resolutions, Regulations, and Circular Letters 1781 – 1889, page “1847”, REGULATION CHANGES AND MODIFICATIONS OF UNIFORM, Navy Department, May 27, 1847.
(2) ibid., page “1852”, REGULATION NAVY DEPARTMENT, September 24, 1852, UNIFORM OF SURGEONS AND PURSERS. 
(4) ibid;, page “1869”, GENERAL ORDER No. 90  NAVY DEPARTMENT, Washington, March 11, 1869.
(5) National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA 1”), Records Group 45, Office of Naval Records and Library, Subject File, U. S. Navy, 1775-1910, 0-1945, NU- Uniforms, U. S. Navy, Officers, and Men. Box No 359, Volume, “Regulations Relating to the Uniform of the Officers of the United States Navy, Navy Department, January 22, 1883”, paragraph “Corps Devices”.
(6) ibid., Volume “Regulations Governing the Uniforms of Commissioned Officers, Warrant Officers, and Enlisted Men of the Navy of the United States, with Plates, 1897 (with typewritten annotation ‘July 1, 1897’)”, p 14, paragraph “Corps Devices”.
(7) San Diego Navy Historical Foundation, Inc., “Uniform Regulations of the United States Navy, Together with Uniform Regulations Common to Both Navy and Marine Corps, Navy Department, [January 25] 1913, page 32, paragraph 72.  http://www.quarterdeck.org/uniforms/1913/Uniform%20Regulations%201913.pdf, accessed 7 Sep 2011.
(8)  Naval History and heritage Command, The Navy Department Library, “Insignias”, http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/uniform_insignia.htm, accessed 7 Sep 2011, section “Insignia of the Medical Corps”. Lt Kenneth Lankin, MC, USN (Lankin, Kenneth M, “The History of the Navy Medical Corps Insignia: A Case for Diagnosis”, MilMed 156, 11:615, 1991) gives the date for this change as 1918, and cites Tily, J. C., “The Uniforms of the United States Navy”, New York, A. S. Barnes and Company, 1964, p 174.

© 2011 Thomas L Snyder

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  • J. T. Broderick  On 07 Oct 2015 at 15:14

    Sorry this comment is so late, but I have also read about the Maltese cross insignia of January 1883 and wondered about it. I believe that edition of the uniform regulations never actually went into effect, based on Navy Department General Order 308 of July 16, 1883:

    This may have been because of pending legislation creating the short-lived rank of ensign (j.g.). At any rate, by the time the revised uniform regulations were approved in November 1883, the Medical Corps insignia had been changed to its “classic” form:

    “For the Medical Corps, a spread oak leaf embroidered in dead gold, with an acorn embroidered in silver upon it.”

    The corps devices were not illustrated in 1883, but were included in the 1886 edition, here is a scan from my copy:

    Even the Navy Department’s 1958 history of corps devices cited 1897 for the MC gold oak leaf, but it is in error.

    Best regards, and I have been enjoying reading this blog.

    • thomaslsnyder  On 08 Oct 2015 at 09:44

      J T Broderick: thanks for your comment. I’d like to enter your comment into the post as an “edit-with-attribution”. To this end, could you tell me a bit about yourself? Please do this via my email thomaslsnyder@gmail.com. FYI, I emailed you at uniform-reference@gmail.com and it bounced back. With best wishes, Tom Snyder

  • Kel  On 30 Nov 2016 at 06:50

    Does anyone know why the oak leaf was chosen to begin with to represent medical corp. I can only assume the strenth of the oak and reference to our military medical, but i can not find out the history of why the oak leaf and not …..

    • thomaslsnyder  On 02 Dec 2016 at 02:46

      I think the best answer is “We don’t know, really” as the decision was taken by a committee and we don’t have any minutes showing deliberation on the matter. Just to be sure, I’ve put the question to BuMed historian Andreé Sobocinski. I’ll post his answer as soon as I see it.
      The matter goes beyond the oak leaf question: how was the arrangement of leaf and acorn(S) – that designate the specializations within the medical department – decided? That is, for medical corps (physicians / surgeons) – acorn imposed upon oak leaf; nurse corps – only oak leaf; dental corps – oak leaf with two acorns appended at stem; and medical service corps (psychologists, epidemiologists, medical logisticians, administrative officers, etc.) – oak leaf with crossed twig on the stem. To the average sailor or line officer, this “system” of identification is impossibly arcane. Add to this the fact that on working khaki uniforms, we wear our rank device on the right collar and corps device (which looks like a lieutenant commander device from a distance) on the left collar. Talk about confusion!

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