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William A. Hammond

Photo William Hammond

Surgeons General

WILLIAM ALEXANDER HAMMOND (Aug. 28, 1828 -Jan. 5, 1900), Surgeon General, April 25, 1862 - August 18, 1864, was born at Annapolis, Md., the son of Dr. John W. and Sarah (Pinkney) Hammond, members of two old Maryland families of Anne Arundel County.  When he was about five years old the family moved to Harrisburg, Pa., where his early education was completed at a local academy.  He began the study of medicine at sixteen and at twenty was given the degree of M. D. by the medical department of the University of the City of New York.  After a year of internship in the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, he settled in Saco, Me., for the practice of medicine.  He stayed there but a few months when he took the examination for the army medical service and was appointed as assistant surgeon on July 29, 1849.  Shortly thereafter he was sent with a body of troops to New Mexico, where during the following three years he served at nine different posts and was engaged a large part of the time in operations against the Indians.  After a sick leave spent in study in Europe he was stationed at West Point and later at Fort Meade, Florida, and Fort Riley, Kansas.  While at Fort Riley he served as medical director of a large force operating against the Sioux Indians and was medical officer with an expedition which located a road to Bridger's Pass in the Rocky Mountains.  From Fort Riley he was transferred to Fort Mackinac in Michigan.  During this first ten years of service he devoted his spare hours to physiological and botanical investigation and in 1857 he published an exhaustive essay Experimental Research Relative to the Nutritive Value and Physiological Effects of Albumen Starch and Gum, when Singly and Exclusively Used as a Food, which was awarded the American Medical Association Prize.

His growing reputation attracted the attention of the authorities of the University of Maryland and on October 31, 1860, he resigned from the army to accept the chair of anatomy and physiology in the medical school in Baltimore.  Here he taught with marked success and practiced his profession until the outbreak of the Civil War.  As surgeon to the Baltimore Infirmary he attended the wounded men of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry, who while marching to the defense of Washington were fired upon by a Baltimore mob.  He resigned his professorship and on May 28, 1861, he reentered the army as an assistant surgeon at the foot of the list upon which he had formerly held high place.  His first Civil War service was as medical purveyor at Frederick, Md.  Later he organized the Camden Street Hospital in Baltimore and was then transferred to the command of General Rosecrans in West Virginia where he was made inspector of camps and hospitals.  His work in this field attracted the favorable attention of the Sanitary Commission, which, dissatisfied with the administration of the medical service of the army, urged the removal of the incumbent head and the appointment of Hammond in his place.  Surgeon General Finley's break with Secretary Stanton brought the opportunity, and despite strong backing for the acting Surgeon General, Colonel R.C. Wood, and a candidate put forward by Secretary Stanton, Hammond was appointed Surgeon General on April 25, 1862.  Colonel Wood failing in his greater ambition, asked for the appointment as assistant Surgeon General, which upon Hammond's approval was given him.  Shortly, however, friction developed between the two and Wood was relieved from duty in the office, though he retained the title of assistant Surgeon General until October 31, 1865.  Major Joseph R. Smith was brought into the office to fill Wood's position.  The year and a half of Hammond's actual tenure of the office was marked by an administration of high efficiency and by many important accomplishments.  These included a new and vastly enlarged supply table and the provision of hospital clothing for patients.

There was a general reorganization of boards of examiners for entrance to the corps and increased standards for applicants.  A new and complete system of hospital reports was introduced, furnishing an amount of information later invaluable in the preparation of the medical history of the war.  On May 21, 1862, he directed the organization of the Army Medical Museum and the collection of specimens and material for its exhibition.  It was during his term that the most definite program was made in the construction and equipment of military hospitals.  That he was a man of vision is evidenced by the highly constructive recommendations that he made, all of which in the fullness of time have come into realization.  He recommended the formation of a permanent hospital corps, the establishment of an army medical school, the establishment of a permanent general hospital in Washington, the autonomy of the medical department in the construction of hospitals and the transportation of supplies, and the institution of a military medical laboratory.  It was inevitable, however, that the masterful personality of Hammond would excite the disapproval of such an autocratic spirit as Secretary Stanton.  Their official and personal relations early became strained and there was constant friction in the conduct of business between the two officers.  This situation culminated in orders issued in the latter part of August 1863 relieving Hammond from charge of the Washington office and directing him to duty inspecting sanitary conditions in the Department of the South with his headquarters in New Orleans.  On Sept. 3, 1863, medical inspector general Joseph K. Barnes was placed in charge of the Surgeon General's office.  The anomalous situation in which he was placed caused General Hammond to demand the restoration of his office or trial by court-martial.  In consequence he was tried on charges and specifications alleging his involvement in irregularities incident to the purchase of medical supplies.  The prosecution was pushed with bitterness and apparent personal animosity.  It is said that the finding of the court-martial was for acquittal, but that this finding was disapproved and a reconsideration directed which resulted in a verdict of guilty and a sentence of dismissal from the army.  The dismissal took effect August 18, 1864.

Upon leaving the army Hammond found himself in straitened circumstances from the expense of his trial.  With the help of friends he was able to establish himself in practice in New York, and in a short time he became a leader in the practice and teaching of neurology, a specialty then in its infancy.  Soon after his arrival in New York he was appointed lecturer on nervous and mental diseases in the College of Physicians and Surgeons.  He resigned this position in 1867 to accept the professorship of the same subjects which bad been created for him in the faculty of Bellevue Hospital Medical College.  In 1874 he transferred to a like professorship in the medical department of the University of the City of New York.  At other times he was on the faculty of the University of Vermont at Burlington and of the Post Graduate Medical School of New York, of which he was one of the founders.

In 1878, then at the height of his success and popularity, he started a campaign for vindication of his conduct of the office of Surgeon General.  Under an act of Congress approved. March 15, 1878 (20 Stat. 511), he was restored to the army and placed upon the retired list as Surgeon General with the grade of brigadier general, without pay or allowances, on August 27, 1879.  In 1888 he moved to Washington where he established a large sanatorium for the care of cases of nervous and mental diseases.  It became necessary for him gradually to limit his professional work on account of a cardiac ailment from which he died at his Washington home on Jan. 5, 1900.  During his later years he became much interested in the therapeutic employment of animal extracts and did much to instruct the medical profession in their use.

Throughout his career Hammond was a facile writer.  While carrying the responsibilities of Surgeon General he found time to write a Treatise on Hygiene, with Special Reference to the Military Service (1863).  The most noteworthy of his other medical works were: On Wakefulness: With an Introductory Chapter on the Physiology of Sleep (1866), Sleep and Its Derangements (1869), Physics and Physiology of Spiritualism (1871), and Insanity in its Medical Relations (1883).  In 1871 he published his Treatise on Diseases of the Nervous System, a well written book largely based on the lectures of Charcot.  This was announced as "the first text-book of nervous diseases in the English language."  He was also a playwrite and novelist.  For a time he was editor of the Maryland and Virginia Journal, published in Richmond and Baltimore.  In 1867 he established the Quarterly Journal of Psychological Medicine and Medical Jurisprudence, of which he was editor until 1875.  He also cooperated (1867-1869) in the founding and editing of the New York Medical Journal and of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases (1867-1883).  General Hammond was a pioneer in field of nervous and mental diseases in the United States.  American neurology began with the Civil War, from the experiences gained by Hammond, S. Weir Mitchell, and William W. Keen.  He was a dominant personality in any field he entered, attracting a following and developing active enemies.  From a certain penchant for theatrical action he could not escape entirely from a reputation for charlatanry.  Personally he was an uncommonly large man, six feet two inches in height, and of two hundred and fifty pounds weight.  He had a powerful voice, a pleasing delivery, and a flow of language which made him a popular speaker.  He was married twice: in July 1849 to Helen Nisbet, daughter of Michael Nisbet of Philadelphia, and in 1886 to Esther T. Chapin.

Sources:  H. E. Brown, Medical Department of the U. S. Army from 1775 to 1873 (1873);  P. M. Ashburn, History of the Medical Department of the U. S. Army (1929);  The Post Graduate, N. Y., May 1900;  J. E. Pilcher, Surgeon Generals of the Army (1905);  Kelly and Burrage, American Medical Biographies (1920); Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. VIII (1932).

[Extracted from "Chiefs of the Medical Department, U.S. Army 1775-1940, Biographical Sketches,"  Army Medical Bulletin, no. 52, April 1940, pp. 42-46, compiled by James M. Phalen, Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S. Army retired]