Wherever you find hospital corpsmen, especially in time of war, the expression above and beyond the call of duty is commonly heard. What is the basis for this? Why have so many members of the Hospital Corps been cited for performance of duty and for gallantry giving their lives in an attempt to save life? For a complete understanding of the espirt de corps of the Hospital Corps, it is necessary to review the past upon which this corps has been built and the traditions which it has established.
From the very beginning of the Navy, it was found necessary to make provisions for the care of the sick and injured. An act of Congress in 1799 provided: A convenient place shall be set apart for the sick and hurt men, to which they are to be removed, and some of the crew shall be appointed to attend them.
That portion of the ship assigned for the care of the sick was designated as the cockpit. It was usually located in the forward part of the vessel, below the water line, as a protection from shot and shell. The cockpit was also referred to as the sick berth. In later years, it became known as the sickbay because the rounded shape of the recess, or bay, was located in the forward part of the ship between decks.
During the Revolutionary War, there were apparently no enlisted men trained in the care of the sick and injured. A number of the least necessary members of the crew were assigned this duty. Most of the ships of this period, depending on size, carried a surgeon and a surgeons mate.
In 1814, Navy Regulations referred to the loblolly boy who was to serve the surgeon and surgeons mate. It was, among many others, the duty of the loblolly boy to go fore and aft the gun and berth decks ringing a small bell to give notice to those slightly indisposed and with ulcers to attend the surgeon at the mainmast. Both from old Navy Regulations and from authentic accounts of shipboard life of that day, the loblolly boy, before battle, was to provide the cockpit with water, containers for amputated limbs, and braziers of charcoal for heating tar with which to stop hemorrhage. He was also to provide buckets of sand to catch the blood from amputations and wounds and to pour over the blood on the decks so that the surgeon might not slip while working. Gruesome and crude? Yes. But the methods in use today may sound the same way to persons nearly 300 years from now. It must be remembered that the customary treatment for compound fractures of limbs at that time was usually amputation. Boarding of vessels, hand-to-hand combat with cutlasses, gun butts, and clubs, and the use of cannons with round balls that did not explode, but were heated red hot before being fired, evidently resulted in many fractures that were eventually amputated.
The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery was established in 1842. An extract from a letter in this bureau dated 5 May 1843 reads as follows:
A circular is now under consideration to allow a surgeons steward to all hospitals and vessels, without necessity to sign articles, but to be appointed.
So far as can be determined, the surgeons steward replaced the loblolly boy. The pay of the surgeons steward is first listed as being per month and one ration.
A surgeons steward is allowed at all hospitals and Navy yards and on board every vessel having a medical officer. As it is important that a respectable class of persons should be employed in this capacity, surgeons will endeavor to select such as have some knowledge of pharmacy and ordinary accounts and are of industrious and temperate habits (Instructions for Medical Officers, U.S. Navy, 1857).
This was the beginning of the selection of specially qualified personnel. In 1863, an order of the Navy Department allowed male nurses on