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History of The Office of Medical History

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The US Army Medical Department has an extensive and illustrious history. Brief historical highlights include maintaining one of the oldest regiments within the Army, providing the antecedent organization for the Army Reserve system, and establishing some of the first methods to capture lessons learned. Preserving, interpreting, and publishing the history of the US Army Medical Department, is the mission of the Office of Medical History. Operating almost continuously since 1862, forms of the Office of Medical History have endured numerous organizational changes. Despite the different incarnations, the Office of Medical History continues to record the activities of the US Army Medical Department and provide Soldiers and the general public with a variety of historical products.

Early Records

Although the activities of Army surgeons and Army medical care can be traced to the Revolutionary War, records of their history are sporadic. Personal journals and a few official documents provide much of the historical record. Most physicians in the Army operated independently within their regiment or region, and unfortunately their first-hand knowledge was not disseminated. Experience gained during the Revolutionary War remained largely cloistered from physicians during Northwestern Territory Campaigns and much of the War of 1812.

A notable improvement of record keeping and centralized organization occurred under the direction of Dr. Joseph Lovell. As the Army reorganized and established a permanent Army Medical Department, Lovell was appointed as the Surgeon General in May of 1818. Soon Lovell sought quarterly reports from Army physicians across the new nation. Early information collected included meteorological registers and vital statistics of the Army. Lovell’s early efforts in book distribution for Army physicians also culminated into the creation of the Library of the Surgeon General in 1836.

Despite these early documentary activities, there was not an organization compiling an official history for the medical department, but publication did eventually advance from the record keeping. In 1856, the Office of The Surgeon General published a collection of statistical information on the health of the US Army. The data was gathered from medical officers throughout the Army, as well as reports from the Surgeon General’s Office between January 1839 and January 1855. The Statistical Report on the Sickness and Mortality in the Army of the United States, included casualty information from the recent war with Mexico and other tabulations, but it did not capture clinical data. The report’s compilation and publication marked another milestone toward the formation of a medical history office. The information was officially gathered, documented, and analyzed. Although novel at the time, the collection was soon overshadowed by the publication of the British Army Medical Service’s Medical and surgical history of the British Army which served in Turkey and the Crimea during the war against Russia, in 1858. Consisting of two volumes, it generated interest and was well received by a world-wide audience as well as the U.S. Army’s Medical Department.

The Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War

Interest in the Crimean War publications continued as the American Civil War began in 1861. Recognizing the importance of capturing the historical significance as well as technical expertise gained on the battlefield, Surgeon General William A. Hammond announced plans to publish a medical history of the war in 1862. A separate historical department did not exist; but early historical efforts were able to proceed under the direction of the Surgeon General’s Office. Records and reports were collected from the field for the projected publication. Artifacts and a
pathological collection were also gathered for educational and illustrative purposes at the newly
established Army Medical Museum.

Assistant Surgeon Joseph J. Woodward, Surgeon J.H. Brinton, and Surgeon George A. Otis were consecutively placed in charge of medical records and related material from 1862 through 1864. In 1865 as the war came to a close the new Surgeon General, Joseph K. Barnes reviewed the compilation of items. According to the Surgeon General’s report, “30,000 cases and 7,630 specimens were being arranged for the history”.

Analysis and the publication of circulars for the massive collection of material continued as an editorial board consisting of Joseph J. Woodward and George A. Otis was formed. The proposed medical history consisted of six volumes divided into medical and surgical sections. Volume one of the Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion was completed in November of 1870. Work on the books progressed with some editorial changes. George A. Otis passed away in February of 1881 and Joseph J. Woodward died in August of 1884. Editorial duties were then transferred respectively to Surgeon D. L. Huntington and Surgeon Charles Smart at the times of their predecessors’ demise.

The massive history task closed in 1888 as the final volume was completed. Each volume includes approximately one thousand pages containing statistics, case studies, and other technical information. Subject matter found in the volumes vary from gunshot wounds to the transportation of the wounded by railway. One of the best records from the American Civil War, the series would lead to reprinting and future interest in recording Army medical history. Other Army medical historical efforts progressed during this time. Physicians and Surgeons of the U. S. by W. H. Atkinson and The Medical Department of the United States Army from 1775 to 1873 by Harvey E. Brown were both published in 1873. These books were also compiled under the direction of Surgeon General Barnes.

Historical work during the Spanish-American War Era is largely unknown. Records and discoveries were fortuitously maintained but as far as can be ascertained, an organized history office did not exist. Later, during the tenure of Surgeon General William C. Gorgas (16 Jan 1914 - 3 Oct 1918), an appointed Historical Board was created. The board consisted of the Librarian of the Army Medical Library, library director, assistant librarian, redactor, and a statistician.These librarians served in similar capacities as current historians. During World War I LTC Fielding Garrison and COL C.C. McCulloch, librarians at the Army Medical Library, collected and interpreted gathered material.

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