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The U.S. Army Medical Department in the Aftermatch of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 18 April 1906

Books and Documents

THE U. S. ARMY MEDICAL DEPARTMENT IN THE AFTERMATH

OF THE SAN FRANCISCO EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE OF 18 APRIL 1906

The devastating earthquake and fire that struck San Francisco, California, and vicinity early on the morning of 18 April 1906 immediately challenged the personnel of the U.S. Army Medical Department (AMEDD) who were then assigned to the headquarters of the U.S. Army's Division of the Pacific and Department of California and the Army General Hospital at Presidio of San Francisco as well as at nearby Fort Mason. Lieutenant Colonel George H. Torney, Medical Corps, then the chief surgeon for the Army's Department of California and also in command of the General Hospital at the Presidio, responded quickly and organized the hospital to care for the injured citizens of San Francisco who sought care and the patients of the city's hospitals that were disabled by the earthquake and fire. The crisis called forth the best from the Army Medical Department's personnel both for the immediate care of the sick and injured and in the imposition of comprehensive preventive medicine actions to control the development and spread of any contagious diseases, such as smallpox or typhoid. The response to the San Francisco earthquake would show that the AMEDD had learned well the grim lessons of the Spanish-American War.

AMEDD personnel played important roles in controlling disease and restoring San Francisco's health care structure. Many of the officers who were directly involved later went on to significant careers. Foremost amongst them was Lt. Col. George H. Torney, whose immediate response to the disaster was critical to establishing the strong medical and sanitary control of the situation. His actions during April and May 1906 played a major part in his later selection in January 1909 to replace Brig. Gen. Robert M. O'Reilly as The Surgeon General, U.S. Army. He was subsequently selected for a second term as The Surgeon General in January 1913, but died of broncho-pneumonia on 27 December 1913. Then a Medical Corps 1st Lt. who supervised refugee camps in the city's smaller parks, Robert U. Patterson eventually rose to be The Surgeon General (1 June 1931-31 May 1935) and a major general. Four others who later reached the rank of general officer in the Army Medical Department also were involved in the San Francisco operations:  Maj. Gen. Harry L. Gilchrist, who commanded Company A, Hospital Corps, later commanded the Chemical Warfare Service (1928-32); Robert E. Noble was later involved with the Panama Canal and was promoted to major general; and two later commanded Walter Reed General Hospital and Army Medical Center, Brig. Gen. James M. Kennedy (1926-29) and Brig. Gen. Albert E. Truby (1934-35).

To provide additional information on the role of the AMEDD at San Francisco in 1906, I have selected the following excerpts from official Army histories and documents. The first two excerpts are from published official Army histories that will provide a general overview of the Army Medical Department's actions. The first excerpt is "Disaster Relief" from Chapter 14, "The Medical Service in Action," of Mary C. Gillett's The Army Medical Department, 1865-1917. The second is from Chapter 4 of Gaines M. Foster's historical study, Demands of Humanity: Army Medical Disaster Relief, which covers the AMEDD's actions and places them within the context of the evolving role of the AMEDD in medical disaster relief operations in the Army and United States. The third selection is a brief overview of the AMEDD's operations from the Report of the Surgeon-General of the Army to the Secretary of War for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1906, also known as the Annual Report of The Surgeon General, 1906. The fourth set of excerpts is drawn from  Maj. Gen. Adolphus Greely's report to the Secretary of War and includes a portion of the overall report pertaining to health and medical problems handled by the AMEDD and the reports of Lt. Col. George H. Torney and 1st Lt. John R. Devereux. The fifth selection is an excerpt of a letter from Dr. Henry du R. Phelan on his experiences in the earthquake and fire that was printed in the July issue of Military Surgeon. Dr. Henry du R. Phelan soon was hired as a Contract Surgeon, U.S. Army, to assist in the field hospitals that the AMEDD set up in Golden Gate Park. The sixth selection is his official report of 30 June 1906 detailing his experiences in supervising the Army field hospital in the Deer Park section of Golden Gate Park in May and June 1906. The seventh document is an article by Capt. William E. Carll, Assistant Surgeon, Oregon National Guard, recounting the actions of the Oregon National Guard's Hospital Corps and a complete regimental field hospital that were dispatched to San Francisco to assist in caring for the sick and injured. The final selection is a brief, contemporaneous account of the AMEDD's operations that initially appeared in the 9 June 1906 issue of Army & Navy Register and was then reprinted in the July 1906 issue of Military Surgeon. Additional information will be added in the near future.

Excerpts and documents:

1.  Excerpt on the Army Medical Department and the San Francisco earthquake and fire from Chapter 14, "The Medical Service in Action," of Mary C. Gillett, The Army Medical Department, 1865-1917:

         "Disaster Relief"     

2.  Excerpt from Gaines M. Foster, Demands of Humanity: Army Medical Disaster Relief:

         Chapter 4 Establishing the Mission: Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Tornadoes, and Floods, 1898-1917

3.  Report of the Surgeon-General of the Army to the Secretary of War for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1906 (ARSG, 1906):

          "Relief Work in San Francisco, Cal."

4.    Excerpts from Annual Reports of the Secretary of War for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1906. Volume I, Appendix A: Earthquake in California, April 18, 1906. Special Report of Maj. Gen.
   
         Adolphus W. Greely, U.S.A., Commanding the Pacific Division, 30 July 1906: ,

            Emergent Sanitation and Camp Sanitation

            Report of Lt. Col. George H. Torney

            Report of 1st Lt. John R. Devereux

5.    Henry du R. Phelan, physician:

            Excerpt from Military Surgeon, Vol. 19, No. 1 (July 1906)

6.    Henry du R. Phelan, Contract Surgeon, U. S. Army: 

            Report of the U.S. Army Field Hospital, (Deer Park), Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, June 30th, 1906.

7.    Captain William E. Carll, Assistant Surgeon, Oregon National Guard, article printed in Military Surgeon, Vol. 19, No. 5 (November 1906):

            "The Oregon National Guard at the San Francisco Earthquake Disaster."

8.    Army & Navy Register article reprinted in Military Surgeon:, Vol. 19, No. 1 (July 1906), pages 84-87:

            "The Work of the Medical Department of the United States Army Army San Francisco" 

John T. Greenwood, Ph.D.
Chief, Office of Medical History
Office of The Surgeon General, U.S. Army
Falls Church, Virginia