Part 1: Early America through the Civil War
Military medicine today reflects both diversity and inclusion now more than ever before in its more than 200-year history.
“Our nation is a tapestry of strength woven with people of all backgrounds and origins. We must take ownership of what we do to cultivate…a workforce that is ready, technically savvy, relevant, and motivated,” Vice Adm. Matthew L. Nathan, U.S. Navy Surgeon General, said about diversity and inclusion.
In June 2013, Army Maj. Gen. Nadja West became the first female African-American two-star general in the Army Medical Command. In September 2007, retired Navy Vice Adm. Adam Robinson, the first African-American physician to serve as commander, National Naval Medical Center, became the first African-American Surgeon General of the Navy and chief, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED). In November of the same year, Navy Master Chief Laura A. Martinez became the first African-American and second woman to serve as Force Master Chief and director of the Hospital Corps.
But before West, before Robinson, before Martinez — Joseph Anderson, a 16-year-old African-American loblolly boy (precursor to hospital corpsmen) served on the schooner USS Eagle in 1800, according to Andre Sobocinski, a BUMED historian.
Former slaves Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Susie King Taylor, and Ann Stokes, nursed soldiers and sailors during the Civil War. The U.S. Army Medical Department Office of Medical History cites as many as 181 black nurses, both female and male, served in convalescent and U.S. government hospitals in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina during the Civil War.
Slaves nursing the military
Learning to read and write as a slave, Taylor proved invaluable to the Union Army when she nursed wounded soldiers and taught those who could not read or write, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). The 1st South Carolina Colored Volunteers hired her as a laundress in 1862. She wrote about her life in the book “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers” published in 1902.
Fugitive slaves, known as “contraband” worked for the Union Army and Navy as nurses, cooks, laundresses and laborers. The NLM refers to Ann Stokes, taken aboard the USS Red Rover as “contraband” in 1863, hired as a nurse. Stokes is cited as the first African-American woman to serve on board a U.S. military vessel and among the first women to serve as a nurse in the Navy.
African-American Surgeons in War
In 1863, Alexander T. Augusta became the first black surgeon in the U.S. Army, commissioned as a major in the 7th U.S. Colored Troops, according to the African American Registry (AAR). After two white assistant surgeons complained to President Abraham Lincoln, ARR records, the president was forced to transfer Augusta to Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Working as a medical examiner, Augusta received the same pay as a black enlisted man, $7 a month. The surgeon petitioned the assistance of a senator to receive the pay he argued he deserved. In 1865, he received the rank of lieutenant colonel.
These trailblazers were just the first ones to break ground to what finally became full integration of African-Americans, not just in military medicine but in the general military as well.
The next two parts of this series, will look at the rise to prominence of African-Americans in military medicine through the turn of the 20th Century, World Wars I and II, and then their role after full integration into the American military.
This article is part of a series originally appearing in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center newsletter, Journal.