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Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War

Introductory Essay

Naval Medicine in the Spanish-American War

     At the beginning of the Spanish-American War the United States Navy was ill prepared to handle sick and wounded seamen. The requirements of war precipitated rapid changes in the Navy’s medical establishment, both in how it performed and in its organization. These changes included the introduction of the first hospital ship and the creation of the hospital corps. The Navy also set up stringent sanitary guidelines to try and control the spread of disease on board naval vessels and its transmission to the American homeland. From the moment the Maine exploded in Havana harbor the Navy medical service responded with diligent preparation and introduced innovative systems and technologies that ushered in a new generation of Navy Medicine.

     Anticipating possible conflict with Spain, Surgeon-General of the Navy William K. Van Reypen initiated measures for the Navy Medical Corps in the wake of the 15 February Maine explosion. These included the purchase and distribution of surgical supplies to Naval Hospitals and ships along the East Coast of the United States and major personnel additions to the Navy’s medical service. Reypen issued a call for volunteer medical officers to meet the anticipated need for doctors. Of the more than 2,000 who applied, Reypen approved 42 and enlisted another 19 from the state Naval Militias.1

     The Navy also purchased a steamship and equipped it in just over sixteen days at Newport News, Virginia, with:

A large and well-lighted operating room, in which were all the appliance for modern antiseptic surgery, a steam disinfecting apparatus, an ice machine, a steam laundry plant, cold storage rooms, and an elevator for taking patients from the operating room and upper deck to the wards below.2

This ship, renamed Solace, was the first of its kind. It was a huge technological advancement in Navy medicine and was the first ship to fly the Red Cross, making it neutral under the terms of the 1864 Geneva Convention. It arrived in the Caribbean in early May and its first patients were the men wounded during the bombardment of San Juan on 12 May.3 Solace was later joined by the hospital ship Bay State, which was funded by the donations of concerned citizens from Massachusetts and staffed by civilian volunteers and doctors.4

     Surgeon-General Van Reypen’s preparations were significant, but the Navy continued to experience shortages. RAdm. William T. Sampson reported from the Caribbean on 1 June, that he expected two percent of his 7,000-man force to be in need of hospitalization at any given time. He anticipated this would require 140 beds. The nearest Navy hospital was the Marine Hospital at Key West and it had only 12 beds reserved for sailors. The Army had 450 beds, but 50 were reserved for quarantine, and the facilities - a convent and tobacco factory -left much to be desired. Once the 50,000 troops planned for the invasion of Cuba were landed, Sampson anticipated that those beds would quickly be occupied.5

     Sampson was also concerned with the general state of Navy medicine. The reliance on Army and civilian volunteer surgeons denied experience to the Navy’s own medical officers. These men were to be the leaders of a new generation of Navy medicine and their knowledge was valuable.6 Secretary Of the Navy John D. Long was receptive to such longstanding concerns, as too was Congress. On 17 June, Congress approved the establishment of the United States Navy Hospital Corps. This law created an entity for employing sailors in medical specialties, including pharmacist and enlisted medical professionals.7

     The Navy medical officers were also tasked with maintaining strict sanitary and quarantine regulations. At the time of the Spanish-American War, the study of infectious disease was still in its infancy, and the causes, effective treatments, and vectors of certain diseases, particularly those in the tropics, remained unknown. Doctors could recognize the symptoms of yellow fever and malaria, but had no idea that the diseases were transmitted by mosquitos. Many worried that the illness might be passed by contact with an infected person and might jeopardize American port cities. Naval officers who spent any time on Cuban shores were ordered to use strict sanitary guidelines, which included such minute details as what direction to face their tent. Sampson issued instructions forbidding all but essential contact with the Army on shore and mandated that no sick men were to be permitted aboard Navy ships unless absolutely necessary. Prisoners were to be disinfected and their clothes burned before transfer to Navy vessels.8 To protect American shores all captured ships were to be kept in quarantine at Key West until they were inspected for disease.9

      Considering the many challenges facing the Navy medical services, they performed admirably. Solace ferried wounded quickly and efficiently, delivering American and captured Spanish soldiers and sailors alike to waiting hospitals on the American East Coast. When the United States Army began experiencing near-epidemic levels of yellow fever, malaria, and dysentery, the Navy employed its auxiliary cruisers to move the sick troops to hospitals in Norfolk, Brooklyn, Hampton Roads, and Boston. There they were treated by Navy surgeons, medical orderlies, and volunteer nurses, some of whom were women, setting an important precedent.10 The reforms undertaken during the Spanish-American War saved lives and ushered in a new era in Navy medicine.

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