Monthly Archives: January 2012

History as the Foundation of Progress

Courtesy NARA Website

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Thus, statesman / philosopher Edmund Burke. Or statesmen / historian Winston Churchill. Or philosopher George Santayana. We are familiar with this argument about the benefit of the study of history. We know we neglect our past at our peril. Think Hitler in Russia. Think our Navy having to rediscover the use of convoys in World War II, but only after we had sustained huge shipping losses to U boat attacks. In medicine, the Chicago Tribune reports that today young doctors are forgetting (or are never taught) diseases common in an earlier era – diseases that are now reappearing and are being misdiagnosed.

Beyond the avoidance of errors of historical ignorance, Santayana (1) hit upon another value of history. He wrote “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is, if  we continually have to re-invent the wheel, we’ll never conceive the wing. Santayana seems to be telling us that our history is a base upon which we can build improvement. I would add: looked upon properly, our history can be a motivator for the “progress” Santayana imagined.

A brief history of The [Kaiser] Permanente Medical Group was part of my initiation into partnership. The lesson covered salient points of Kaiser Health Care Program history from its origins at Desert General Hospital during the Great Depression, through its growth during World War II, to the trials it faced after the war, and its responses – generally but not always successful- to the stresses facing medicine in the modern world. Through that history lesson, I better understood how the values of the organization developed. That historical lesson and those values informed how I  played my role in helping improve the organization – and added to its history – through both my medical practice and my administrative work.

The Marines use their history to very good effect. They teach the history of valor under combat. But also they teach, by examples from their history, such “values” as, “no Marine  is ever left behind”, a sure and powerful morale tool that helps maintain combat power when the going gets tough. But in addition, the teaching of high moral values, again by examples from Marine Corps history, makes the common Marine reaction to the recent controversy over desecration of Muslim bodies to be one of universal condemnation – by other Marines. This condemnation itself becomes part of Marine history – an additional layer of Santayanan “retentiveness” that is the foundation of progress and improvement.

What “retentiveness” does the history of maritime medicine have to offer us? William Osler – looked upon as the father of modern medicine in the US – in highlighting what he saw as advantages of practicing medicine in the military, cited the historical advances in medicine produced by men like William Beaumont working , isolated, in posts remote from the Big City. (2) The Navy has the example of research pioneers like Ashton Graybiel, who, in a 40+ year career at the Naval Aerospace Medicine Research Center / it predecessors, laid a foundation of discoveries upon which researchers build even today. Similar examples no doubt can be found in the annals of Tropical and Hyperbaric / Submarine Medicine. Certainly the history of the Navy Medical Department in World War II offers us lessons even today on how an organization can respond effectively to extraordinary demands.

The National Archives building at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC bears the motto “What is Past is Prologue” (see inside the yellow rectangle in the image above). Retained and properly studied, that Past, our history, can inform how we build an “improved” – a better – future.


(1) Santayana, George. The Life of Reason, or the Phases of Human Progress, originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1905, now available on line from The Project Gutenberg,, accessed 26 Jan 2012, Volume I “Reason in Common Sense”, section “Continuity Necessary to Progress”.

(2) Beaumont, an Army surgeon, elucidated the physiology of gastric digestion in a series of observations made at a series of posts on the Canadian frontier in the early 19th century. Osler mentions other isolated workers as well as Beaumont in his 1896 speech “The Army Surgeon”, given at the graduation of the first class from the then new Army Medical School in Washington DC., accessed 27 January 2012.

©2012 Thomas L Snyder

“Yes We Scan”

Last week I received an electronic flyer from the National Coalition of History promoting a petition to the White House via the new “We the People” mechanism. The petition asked the President “to create a commission that will answer–within 1 year–questions such as what are our federal holdings, what would it take to digitize them, how much would it cost, and what are the economic and non-economic benefits?” In order for the petition to meet success, it had to garner 25,000 signatures. I had planned to treat with it in this post, but alas, today was the petition’s deadline. According to the White House site, the petition failed to meet the required signature threshold, and it has vanished into the ether.

Clearly, this is not the end of the story. We’ve written before about digitized archives and records and reviewed the benefits to researchers and the headaches to archivists that they are. The Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, has expressed his support of an “update of policies and practices [for] the digital age”. YesWeScan, which already has had success in getting government legal documents digitized goes further: their 21 December 2011 letter to the President calls for  the establishment of a Presidential Commission to look at the long-term benefits and costs of digitization, and to fashion a unified national policy regarding digitization of federal holdings.

Needless to say, the Feds are the 800 pound gorilla in this matter: what the government decides here will have immense influence throughout the archival and historical communities, both here and around the world. It behooves us, therefore, to pay attention to the matter, and to weigh in when we see it necessary.

©2012 Thomas L Snyder

Society for the History of Navy Medicine Announces a New Research Grant

The Society for the History of Navy Medicine announces a new annual grant of up to $1500 for research in the history of naval or maritime medicine. The grant is intended to support work being done by a student enrolled in a program leading to a degree above the baccalaureate level in history, medical history or the medical professions.

The grant may be used for travel to a research site; photocopying, photography or microfilming; borrowing or access fees; and similar research-related expenses. Society membership is encouraged but is not required.

Applications, consisting of a 1250 – 1750 word project description and a project budget, should be submitted electronically, no later than 15 April, to the Society Executive Director at All submissions, marked with an identifying number only, will be reviewed by a panel of eminent historians. We will announce the winning submission by 1 July.

–17 January 2012

©2012 The Society for the History of Navy Medicine

U S Naval History at Risk?

The Navy historical world was all abuzz this week with a report that U S Navy history is “in jeopardy”. The newspaper Navy Times, in an 8 January article, describes a U S Naval History and Heritage Command (formerly the Naval Historical Center) that is “beset with preservation problems and internal strife”.

The article, citing a recent navy Inspector General inspection, goes on to relate that the chronically underfunded Command lacks proper climate controlled spaces for its extensive collection of fragile documents, photographs and “operational archives”. The result: “documents and photos … deteriorating from mold and mildew”.

In addition, according to the quoted IG inspection, the Command’s mostly civilian staff is not properly represented at the highest levels of leadership, largely because directors of the archives and histories division and the museums and collections division are both retired naval officers with no formal training in archival, historical or museum arts and sciences. The report points out that the Command’s historical and archival “professionals feel like their advice is ignored, their work is underfunded, and their access to the director is limited…”

When Navy officials appointed retired Rear Admiral Jay DeLoach to direct the Command in 2008, according to the Navy Times article, they tasked him to “change the culture” of the Command, and make it more responsive to Navy needs.

DeLoach’s leadership may be paying off despite the IG’s report. For instance,the Command now has a very aggressive Facebook and LinkedIn presence; I have seen several-times-daily posts to these social networking sites. The article also points out that soon after taking leadership, DeLoach began a program to “push” historical notes out to operational commands Navy wide.

DeLoach has also seen some success in improving the Command’s funding: $38 million are earmarked for fiscal year 2012, representing a 46% increase from the year before. Historian Bill Dudley, indicated in a separate communication that the Historical Center’s budget in 2004, his last year as Director, was $12 million. Staffing problems may also be on the way to resolution as well: the Command reports plans to hire forty-seven new personnel in fiscal year 2013.

Finally, the Navy Times article quotes a Command spokesperson reporting success in moving the more fragile elements of its collection into climate controlled facilities.

Comment: The IG report has not been released to the public, so, for now, all we have to go on is the newspaper report and our own personal experience. To this observer, the Naval History and Heritage Command has definitely put on a more “user friendly” face, with frequent Facebook feeds and the like. The Command website is “busy”, but reasonably easy to navigate; and it is rich with resources. It appears that Admiral DeLoach has been pretty successful in obtaining ever more funding for the Command, though one is left to wonder about future funding given upcoming Pentagon austerity. It also appears that actions are being taken to protect the more vulnerable portions of the Command’s vast collections. Left moot is any comment about upgrading facilities to assure proper temperature and humidity control for all of the Command’s archival and museum spaces.

The most glaring apparent problem remaining to be attacked is the reported disconnect between top leadership and the civilian professionals responsible for the day to day operation of the Command’s collections and facilities. This observer believes a meaningful first step would be the immediate appointment of experienced archives and museum professionals as deputies to the commander. This would, in one fell swoop, overcome the barrier of communications alleged to be at the root of the Command’s internal strife.

The documents, photos and other artifacts housed in the Command’s storage spaces, museums, historical ships and other assets are invaluable and often irreplaceable national treasures. Naval officials, it seems to me, have a solemn obligation to assure that state-of-the-art best practices are applied to every aspect of Naval History and Heritage Command operations.

If any reader has access to the IG report, please communicate this to me through the Comments section, or in a personal email:

©2012 Thomas L Snyder

Everyday Medical Life Aboard Ships

I remember my days aboard destroyers as a Vietnam-era Squadron Medical Officer as requiring one to endure hours of boredom, gently punctuated by the occasional inspection of medical stores or the occasional consultation for a particularly pernicious case of gonorrhea. While the story of how the particular sailor caught his case of the gleet may have made for a good morality short story, everyday shipboard medical life is not the stuff that excites historians. Until now.

Society for the History of Navy Medicine member William P McEvoy (he goes by “Mac”) has recently had published “‘Experiences at Sea’: A Navy Doctor at War”, in the Journal of Military History. Mac, a PhD student in military history at Kansas State University introduces his topic in his Abstract thus:

This article identifies a significant hole in the literature of World War II.
Few works discuss the everyday life of medical personnel and fewer still
detail the lives of naval medical providers; those that do tend to focus on
the exciting and bloody aspects of a medico at war. Filling this gap, this
article argues that the most accurate picture of life at war should include
life’s routine features and then describes the everyday experiences of
a U.S. Navy doctor in the Pacific from September 1944 to December
1945, whose daily existence was far different from and more typical
than the one most often portrayed.

Mac’s paper is here: McEvoy. He’s very interested to have your comments of praise and of constructive criticism. Leave a comment below, or send me an email, and I’ll forward your comments to the author.

©2012 Thomas L Snyder