U S Navy Medical Corps Beginnings

A death in the family takes me away from writing this week. Herewith, I post an article I wrote in my role as Surgeon General of the Naval Order of the United States. It should appear in the Order’s spring newsletter, publish date to be determined.

Historical Note

The US Navy was a relative latecomer to the establishment of a permanent corps of physicians to serve the health of sailors. While the navy assigned medical officers – doctors commissioned in the naval service – to ships and shore establishments from the very beginning, surgeons (the other term commonly used for navy physicians) did not have their own organization in the Navy until the establishment of the Medical Corps on 3 March 1871.

Historically, in the west at least, mention of physicians serving aboard naval vessels goes back to the Greek poet Homer. The Roman navy is believed to have paid its surgeons double the army rate in order to encourage their service in the less prestigious military arm. During the late middle ages, the Italian maritime republics routinely posted surgeons aboard ships, and during the Crusades, naval surgeons established shore based facilities for the care of injured and sick sailors. Medical Officers of Genoa and Venice were responsible for issuing health certificates to sailors of these navies; these officers also established port quarantine (from Italian quarantina giorni–”forty days”) procedures for prevention of imported contagion, especially the plague.

In the modern era, the Spanish and French were early to adopt standing naval medical establishments, maintaining naval hospitals in colonial territories. While the British Royal Navy had surgeons aboard ships from the 15th century, they did not form what might be recognized as a formal medical corps until 1805, when for the first time, surgeons of the Royal Navy were granted rank similar to other military officers, and a distinguishing uniform.

From the beginning, U S navy regulations specified a unique uniform for medical officers, but they were not granted rank-equivalence with their line officers until around the time of World War I. Prior to that, medical ranks were Assistant Surgeon, Passed Assistant Surgeon, Surgeon, Medical Inspector and Medical Director. At the time of Medical Corps formation, the prescribed uniform feature that designated a medical officer was a strip of cobalt color between the rank-identifying gold sleeve bands:   (here the rank of Medical Inspector, equivalent to Commander).

Today the unique designator for a U S Navy doctor is the acorn-on-an-oak-leaf –  – a symbol of obscure origin instituted by Naval Regulations in 1897.

©2012 Thomas L Snyder

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