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

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


VADM Faison - photo - as of 31 DEC 2015
Vice Adm. Forrest Faison is Navy Medicine’s 38th surgeon general and 42nd chief, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMEDIn December 2015, Vice Adm. Forrest Faison took the helm of Navy Medicine as the 38th surgeon general and 42nd chief, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED).  He is continuing a tradition of Navy Medicine leadership extending back 173 years and following an impressive array of world-renown clinicians and war heroes, medical educators, authors and even an explorer to boot.

Prior to becoming Navy surgeon general, Vice Adm. Faison served as commanding officer of Naval Medical Center San Diego, Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton and Expeditionary Medical Force (EMF) Kuwait. In fact, thirty-three (78 percent) surgeons general were former commanders of Navy hospitals. Prior to 2011—when the Walter Reed Army Hospital merged with the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC)—command of either the NNMC or the Naval Hospital Bethesda was a key stepping stone for selection. Since August 1942, when NNMC was commissioned, eight of the next twenty Navy surgeons general (or 40 percent) could claim command of Bethesda.

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Vice Adm. Robinson , the 36th Surgeon General, was one of eight commanders of Bethesda to become the Navy’s top doctor. BUMED Archives

While most of the Navy surgeons general held a single hospital command, six Navy surgeons general held three hospital commands over their careers.  To date, only one Navy surgeon general could boast of having four hospital commands—Vice Adm. Willard Arentzen, the 27th surgeon general, served as commanding officer of hospitals in Portsmouth, Virginia,San Diego, California, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and the military treatment facility (MTF) aboard the hospital ship USS Sanctuary, prior to his selection. Of the nine Navy surgeons general who commanded hospitals overseas, three held commands of wartime facilities (i.e., Naval Station Hospital Da Nang, Vietnam, Naval Hospital Tabasco, Mexico, and EMF Kuwait).

Part I. VADM James Zimble--the Only TMO to become SG
Vice Adm. James Zimble, the 30th Surgeon General, was the only Medical Officer of the Marine Corps to become the Navy’s top doctor. BUMED Archives

Of the 42 physicians appointed as Navy surgeon general, eight had prior service aboard a hospital ship.  Of these, Vice Adm. Robert Brown was the only one to serve aboard three hospital ships (Solace, Repose, and Tranquility). Rear Adm. Charles Stokes was the only Navy surgeon general to claim duty as commanding officer of the actual hospital ship and not merely its MTF (USS Relief, 1909).

Vice Adm. Faison is the eleventh Navy surgeon general since World War I to have served with the Marine Corps. Of these eleven leaders, Rear Adm. H. Lamont Pugh holds the distinction as the only enlisted Marine to become Navy surgeon general. Pugh enlisted as a Marine Corps private at the start of World War I.

Since the position was created in June 1954, there has only been one medical officer of the Marine Corps (Vice Adm. James Zimble) selected as Navy surgeon general.  As for Army service, only Rear Adm. Perceval Rossiter, the 18th Navy surgeon general, could claim this distinction. Rossiter served as a physician in the U.S. Army from 1898 to 1902.

Part I. RADM William Van Reypen was one of 11 Civil War veterans to serve as SG
Rear Adm. William Van Reypen, the 11th Surgeon General, was one of 11 Civil War veterans to serve as the head of the Navy Medical Department. BUMED Archives

A veteran of the Spanish-American War and Philippines Insurrection, Rossiter could be called a “part of a trend” among Navy surgeons general.  74 percent of Navy surgeons general were veterans of 16 wars and conflicts going back to the War of 1812. Remarkably, twelve of these war veterans—nearly 40 percent—served in the Civil War. To date, the Civil War has produced more Navy surgeons general than any other conflict including World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined. Incredibly, Navy Medicine went through a 31- year span from 1871 to 1902, headed by a Civil War veteran.  Beginning in 1955, Navy Medicine went through a 21-year span of being headed by a World War II veteran.