The Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy: A Statistical and Biographical Retrospective, Part III

By André B. Sobocinski, historian, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.


Navy surgeons general have been a well-published lot over the years. Their literary output includes textbooks, articles, clinical studies, histories, memoirs, travelogues and even one epic poem.

Part III. Commodore William Maxwell Wood was the author of a number of Navy travelogues
Commodore William Maxwell Wood, the 1st Surgeon General, documented tours of duty aboard ship with two popular travelogues. BUMED Archives

Surgeon William P.C. Barton was one of most published BUMED chiefs since 1842.  Over the course of his career, Barton authored six books including the very ambitiously named hospital administration text, A Treatise Containing a Plan for the Internal Organization and Government of Marine Hospitals in the United States: Together with a Scheme for Amending and Systematizing the Medical Department of the United States Navy (1814). Barton also wrote a guide for practicing medicine in the West Indies, and a number of important botanical texts. His compendiums Flora Philadelphiae Prodromus (1815), Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States (2 volumes, 1817-1825) and Flora of North America (1821-1823) were standards of their day and also included his own hand-colored illustrations.

Since the beginning of the U.S. Navy, physicians have consistently been among the most literary of a ship’s company, authoring texts on medical topography, climatology, zoology, geology, and botany.  As far back as the 1820s, a number of Navy surgeons published travelogues documenting their journeys at sea. The first Navy surgeon general, Commodore William Maxwell Wood, continued this tradition with two travelogues, Wandering Sketches of People and Things in South America, Polynesia, California, and Other Places Visited During a Cruise Aboard the U.S. Ships Levant, Portsmouth, and Savannah (1849) and Fankwei: or The San Jacinto in the Seas of India, China, and Japan (1859).

Part III. Commodore James Croxall Palmer, author of the epic poem Thulia
Commodore James Croxall Palmer, the 3rd Surgeon General, served with the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. During a voyage to the southernmost continent, Palmer was inspired to write the epic poem Thulia. BUMED Archives

One of Wood’s successors as Navy surgeon general was Commodore James Croxall Palmer, formerly of the famed U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842.   A voyage aboard USS Flying Fish to the southern continent inspired Palmer to pen the epic poem Thulia: A Tale of the Antarctic(1843).  Four verses of the poem would later be set to guitar by famed American geologist James Dana.  At a special event in 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey hosted a public performance of the Palmer-Dana song.

The development of bacteriology and the birth of public health movements in the late nineteenth century would go far to reshape our understanding of disease and the means of disease prevention. This new age of medicine would also help remold the role of the Navy physician. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Rear Adm. Edward Stitt helped advance and further define the fields of bacteriology, medical research and preventive medicine with the seminal textbooks Practical Bacteriology, Hematology, and Animal Parasitology (1923) and Diagnosis and Treatment of Tropical Diseases (1929).

Navy surgeons general have also authored a number of autobiographical and biographical works. Vice Adm. Ross McIntire’s memoirs, The White House Physician (1946) and Twelve Years with the President (1948) were written to shed perspective on his controversial role as President Franklin Roosevelt’s primary physician. Rear Adm. H. Lamont Pugh’s autobiography Navy Surgeon (1959) is a frank and detailed account of his 35-year career in the Navy and Marine Corps.

Part III. Commodore Jonathan Foltz was the subject of a colorful biography in 1931
Commodore Jonathan Foltz, the 2nd Surgeon General, was the subject of the 1931 biography, Surgeon of the Seas: The Adventurous Life of Surgeon General Jonathan M. Foltz in the Days of Wooden Ships. BUMED Archives

Several Navy surgeons general have even documented the lives of other historical figures. In 1837, Dr. Thomas Harris, the second BUMED chief, penned a biography of his friend, shipmate and patient in The Life and Services of Commodore William Bainbridge, United States Navy. Navy Surgeon General William Braisted co-authored a biography of his mentor and predecessor in The Life Story of Presley Marion Rixey, Surgeon General, U.S. Navy, 1902-1910 (1930).

In 1931, CharlesFoltz, the son of a former Navy surgeon general, published the biography, Surgeon of the Seas: The Adventurous Life of Surgeon General Jonathan M. Foltz in the Days of Wooden Ships. The colorful life of Foltz included service in the battle of Quallah Battoo, the Mexican War and Civil War, friendships with David Farragut and Samuel F.B. Morse, and a tour as White House physician. Eight decades after it was first published, the Foltz biography is still a very engaging read.

2 comments

  1. Has an MSC – since its inception – ever served as Navy Surgeon General?

    • Dear Mr. Duren,
      Thank you for your question. To date, all of our Navy Surgeons General have
      been physicians. We have had MSC officers serve as Deputy Surgeon General
      (DSG), three in fact: Rear Adm. Stephen (Todd) Fisher (1995 to 2000), Rear Adm.
      Michael Mittelman (2011-2013) and Rear Adm. Terry Moulton (2015 to Present). I
      hope this helps. v/r, André