April 2nd, 1827
Construction of the United States’ first Naval hospital begins
On April 2nd, 1827, the construction of the U. S. Navy’s first hospital began, in Portsmouth, Virginia. Although the construction of this hospital, which was finally completed in 1830, took three years, it marked a great milestone in the history of U. S. naval medicine. Previously, the Navy had been ill-equipped to aid its wounded sailors, especially in times of war, and the construction of a hospital dedicated solely to naval medicine at last paved the way to innovations that would prove invaluable, such as hospital boats from the Civil War onwards. An article which appeared in the September 1929 issue of Proceedings, documented the history of naval medicine, from the very beginnings of the world’s first navies, to the developments later made by the twentieth-century American and European navies. The article, written by Commander W. L. Mann (M. C.), USN, is excerpted below:
A cursory review of the origin and development of the profession of naval medicine shows that it evolved during the days of the Roman Empire, almost disappeared as a distinct entity during the Dark Ages, and later became an organized medical service in the Venetian navy during the fourteenth century. About this time, ship’s barbers functioned as ship’s surgeons, in addition to tonsorial activities. Not so very long ago, comparatively speaking, the regulations of one of the European naval medical schools required that assistant surgeons be able to “shave and bleed.” In the seventeenth century the physicians on ships were rated as “common” men, “pressed” men, i,e., forcibly inducted in the service. In 1704 they became warrant officers; in 1808 senior surgeons attained wardroom rank; in 1843 they were elevated to commissioned officers, and in 1856 the junior surgeons were allowed wardroom rank. (British.) In more recent times, the naval medical corps has developed into a highly specialized organization that endeavors to apply the principles of modern medicine towards the advancement of the science of naval warfare.
Naval medicine today may be regarded as one of the components of modern medicine, and as such should be entitled to share in some of the latter’s achievements, of which President Coolidge says “there is no finer page in the history of civilization than that which records the advance in medical science.”
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One of the first allusions to naval medicine in America was made by the “first admiral of New England,” also governor of Virginia, Captain John Smith, in the Seaman’s Grammar, 1652, which outlines the post-combat plans aboard ship as follows:
Chirurgion, looke to the wounded; and winde up the slaine, with each a bullet or weight at their heads and feet to make them sinke; and give them three gunnes for their funeral. Swabber, make cleane the ship. Purser, record their names. Gunners, sponge your ordnance. Soldiers, scoure your pieces. Carpenters, about your leakes. Boatswaine and the rest, repaire sails and shrouds; and, cooke, see you observe the morning watch. Boy, fetch my cellar of bottels. Master, lay him aboard, loufe for loufe. Midshipmen, see the tops and yards well manned with stones, fire pots, and brass bales.
The American Navy, with its medical corps, is said to have had its embryonic origin in the colony of Virginia, being first developed there as a distinct arm of national defense, which was sanctioned by the royal authority of Great Britain.
Later, the colonists of Virginia, foreseeing the coming struggle with the mother country, in May, 1776, proceeded to form plans for creating a naval force by arming seventy vessels of the merchant marine, which were constructed at the Chickahominy Navy Yard, near Norfolk, Virginia.
In October, 1775, the Continental Congress ordered the first naval armament, and by the end of the year thirteen vessels of war had been authorized. On November 28, 1775, the Rules and Regulations for the Navy were enacted, and these, with certain modifications approved in 1780, form the basis of the present “Articles.”
It appears that the Continental medical officers were familiar with a type of chemical warfare as a naval weapon. The brig Defiance was equipped with twenty earthen jars, filled with a mixture of decayed fish, asafetida, saltpeter, and brimstone, prepared with a wick, called an oxtail. When lighted, the gas-producing apparatus gave off nauseating and suffocating fumes—presumably non-lethal, yet effective in overcoming the enemy.
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One of the first prototypes of the modern naval hospital was established under authority of a decree, dated February 9, 1318, for aged and indigent sailors. This institution was founded by the naval surgeon Gualterius, and was under the direct supervision of the Doge of Venice. In connection with this institution, a herb garden was maintained for the cultivation of medicinal plants.
To France belongs the credit for the establishment of the first strictly hospital accommodation for naval use. When Colbert, minister of Louis XIV, organized the navy of France, and founded Rochefort, a naval hospital was erected about 1666 in the priory of Saint-Eloy.
England, a few years later (1695), converted the partially erected palace of Charles II at Greenwich into a home for aged and wounded seamen. It was not until 1756 that the first naval hospital was constructed along more modern ideas, when a London architect designed a naval hospital that was built at Stonehouse, near Plymouth, England. Since that time naval hospitals have sprung up along the coasts of all civilized countries—”Born of no religion, the offspring of sheer necessity, they await the tocsin of war.”
Although the history of the Navy of the United States began as early as October 13, 1775, no attempt was made to establish naval hospitals until Congress passed the law of February 26, 1811, establishing these institutions. Shortly after the Revolutionary War there was no need for naval hospital facilities, as the American Navy practically ceased to exist when the last naval vessel, the Alliance, was sold in 1785. By July 16, 1798, Congress, realizing the need of institutions for the care of sick and injured seamen of merchant vessels, passed an act which was the beginning of the Marine Hospital Service. One year later this act was amended to include seamen of the naval service, who were cared for in the same hospitals with merchant seamen. As was to be expected, the scheme of divided control of naval patients did not work well.
On February 22, 1810, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton, in a letter to the chairman of the House Naval Committee, prompted the Act of February 26, 1811, establishing naval hospitals, and placing the construction of them under the supervision of a board of commissioners.
Unfortunately, nothing much was done by the board of commissioners (consisting of the Secretaries of the Navy, Treasury, and War Department) from 1811 to 1830 toward erecting permanent naval hospitals, thereby forcing the naval medical department to utilize temporary buildings. Thus in Philadelphia in 1813 a “wretched hovel,” calculated to hold eight patients but actually caring for, at one time, twenty-four patients, was used as a hospital.
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Naval hospitals about this time were often used as take-offs for deserters, hence patients were sent to hospital “under charge of a discreete officer, accompanied by a surgeon or one of his mates.” In 1795, an iron railing was placed around one of the British naval hospitals, the windows barred and doors locked at night to prevent desertions.
Our early naval hospitals were not far behind as places for desertions. The naval hospital at Philadelphia, about 1820, was described by one writer as a “hovel,” where “patients remained until they could gather strength to desert.”
The Secretary of the Navy in a letter to the House Naval Committee states that on “an average three out of five desert as soon as they get into a convalescent state.” About this time the institutions of the Marine Hospital Service, now the Public Health Service, were used by the Navy for hospital accommodations.
Our latest medical regulations (1927), still require a medical officer to accompany patients to a hospital, modified, however, “when practicable,” and “in serious cases”—a vestigial remnant of days of forcible recruiting and another striking illustration of how traditions “die hard” in the naval service.