Navy Medicine in Araby (Episode 3)

This is part 3 of a 7 part series contrasting 19th century Navy medicine with the care today’s navy medical team provides our sailors, Marines and soldiers.

Probably the first-ever designated hospital ship in the U.S. Navy started her life as a ketch built in France in 1798 for service in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. Later, she was sold to the Bey of Tripoli and took part in the capture of USS Philadelphia in October 1803. Subsequently taken by LT Stephen Decatur while transporting a cargo of female slaves, she was commissioned into the US Navy as USS Intrepid. She lived up to her name participating in Decatur’s daring action to retake and burn Philadelphia in February 1804. Mediterranean squadron Commodore Edward Preble noted in a diary entry dated 9 July that he had designated the ketch as a hospital ship[1]. According to the ship’s history, this was from 1 June. She served in this role through July,[2] by which time Commodore Preble likely had in hand the Secretary of the Navy’s instructions authorizing him to establish a Naval Hospital ashore, at Syracuse, Malta or some other agreeable place.[3] Thus was the very short career of the first known U.S. Navy hospital ship.

After several months of considering ideal sites (many were rejected because of the ease with which sailors could desert from them), a house large enough to accommodate 100 men was secured in Syracuse, Sicily. Surgeon Cutbush was put in charge of the place in November 1804. About 100 men – sailors, Marines and other soldiers – received their treatment there. A treaty of peace with Tripoli in 1805 made the hospital redundant, and Cutbush was ordered to close the facility in April 1806,[4]

Upon cessation of the War of 1812, the Navy returned to the Mediterranean because the Algerians had resumed their depradations upon American merchant shipping. Navy Secretary Crowninshield intended that a Naval Hospital be established early on. Commodore Chauncy fancied Port Mahon on the island of Menorca off the southeastern coast of Spain, but the Spanish government waxed and waned in its support of the notion. Accordingly, a “hospital of sorts” was established there during the American squadron’s winter-over in 1816-17, only to be taken down when the Spanish essentially kicked us out due to our support of South American independence movements. A hospital established on the River Arna at Pisa, Italy lasted only a short while because it was too far from most Naval activity; it closed late in 1821. Meanwhile, by 1825, relations between the U.S. and Spain warmed sufficiently that a naval base was established at Port Mahon, and with it, a Naval Hospital on Quarantine Island there. This hospital – recently celebrated as the first ever permanent overseas U. S. Naval Hospital – remained in business for nearly 20 years.[5]

The only record of navy medical interaction with the inhabitants of the Barbary states that I’ve been able to find is borne in the journal of Dr Jonathan Cowdery, a Navy surgeon, held captive after the Tripolitan capture of the USS Philadelphia. Within two months of his capture, Dr Cowdery had been summoned to care for the Pascha and his officers, and by early February 1804, was requested to be physician to the Pascha’s family. So impressed was the Pascha with Dr Cowdery’s cure of his very sick son, that Cowdery worried that he would not be released with the rest of the Americans come the time the U.S. government paid the required ransom. At one point, he purposefully bungled a finger amputation on one of the Pascha’s soldiers in hopes that the Pascha would lose faith in his skills. It didn’t work, and in fact, so pleased was the Pascha with Cowdery’s work overall that he at one point he told the doctor he would not take $20,000 for his release, by comparison with $50 for each of the other prisoners, officers and men. Cowdery never mentions caring for Tripolitan commoners but seemed quite comfortable rubbing elbows with Tripolitan aristocracy.[6]

[1] Roddis, Louis H, Naval Medicine in the Early Days of the Republic, Journal of the History of Medicine, V 16 (1961), pp 103-123.

[2] Naval History and heritage Command website, article “Intrepid I (Ketch),, accessed 1 September 2016.

[3] Roddis, op. cit.

[4] Langley, op. cit., p 97-102.

[5] Langley, op. cit., pp 267-270.

[6] Cowdery, Jonathon, “American Captives in Tripoli”, in Narratives of Barbary Captivity, Allison, RobertJ., ed., Lakeside Press, Chicago, 2007, pp 123-177

(c)2017 Thomas L Snyder

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