What is the Navy Medical Service Corps?

By Mike Case

Did you know the U.S. Navy has been caring for the medical needs of sailors and Marines since the military branch was first established in 1775? It’s true!

What began as an effort to care for injured and sick sailors during the Revolutionary War, Navy medicine has since evolved into a complex network of highly trained medical professionals who provide cutting-edge, 24/7 medical care to sailors, Marines their families all around the world.

One pillar of the Navy medicine today is the Naval Medical Service Corps, which was established on August 4, 1947 after World War II.

What does a Medical Service Corps Officer do?

The Navy Medical Service Corps is made up of Naval officers who serve as healthcare administrators, scientists or medical care providers. Depending on their expertise, a Medical Service Corps officer can do a variety of Navy jobs, including scientific and medical research, providing hands-on clinical care for military family members and providing administrative support.

Some members of the Navy Medical Service Corps have even been on serving on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Piece of American Military History: The Navy Medical Service Corps

During WWII, the U.S. military faced a variety of unique medical, scientific and technical challenges as they tried to care for the health needs of service members fighting around the world.

Photo credit DVIDS/Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery/ Historian, Andre Sobocinski

A Navy “Malaria and Epidemic Control Unit” in Saipan in the 1940s.

Never-before seen problems, like how to cope with tropical diseases, how to provide clean drinking in remote locations, and how to care for troops working in extreme conditions (i.e. pilots at high altitudes or sailors in submarines), proved to be challenging issues requiring subject-matter expertise.

To the Navy, the need was clear for an officer corps of scientific, medical and professional specialists to help tackle these – and future – similar operational challenges.

Thus, after the war, the Naval Medical Service Corps was born in 1947.

The Navy Medical Service Corps began with a group of 251 officers who were known as the “plank owners.” In the beginning, the unit was organized into four sections: supply and administration, optometry, pharmacy and allied sciences (an umbrella term for a variety of scientific specialties).

Since then, the incredibly diverse Navy Medical Service Corps has expanded to over 2,500 officers with training in 30-plus diverse specialties, including aerospace physiology, biochemistry, medical logistics and physical therapy.

Photo credit U.S. Navy/Jacob Sippel

Lt. Ashley Russell, lab manager at Naval Hospital Jacksonville, discusses sampling technique with Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Bethany Johnson and Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Christopher Barkley on July 15, 2019.

While the Navy Medical Service Corps serves a variety of functions, one of its key jobs is to provide the Navy with research on operationally-relevant biomedical topics like disease, sanitation and, interestingly, human blood.

In the early wars of the 20th century, when battle casualties were high, military medical staff found it hard to meet the wounded’s demand for blood given the perishable nature of fresh whole blood.

So, during the 1950s, the military began researching ways to freeze blood so it could extend its shelf life and make it more portable. Navy Medical Service Corps personnel, along with other Navy and U.S. military personnel, worked to develop a cryopreservative chemical – glycerol – that allowed blood to be safely frozen, transported and thawed.

During the Vietnam War, this innovation allowed the military to send frozen blood from the U.S. to supplement the demand for whole fresh blood in Vietnam. Once frozen blood arrived near the frontlines, Navy blood specialists, would use a special technique to thaw and wash the blood – removing the cryopreservative chemical – to prepare it for medical use.

Photo credit Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Archives

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Edna McCormick and Hospital Corpsman Chief H. E. Williams use a cytoglomerator to reconstitute frozen blood.

During the Vietnam war, many service members received life-saving blood treatments thanks to the military’s scientific breakthroughs on frozen blood.

Today, some Navy Medical Service Corps officers are still an active part of the Armed Service Blood Program, which provides all blood products for the U.S. armed forces.

Medical Service Corps Officers Innovate Science to Help Curb the Spread of Disease

Other Navy Medical Service Corps officers are busy working to prevent, treat and educate military and civilian communities about illnesses around the world.

Photo credit U.S. Navy/DVIDS

A mosquito.

On a similar note, there are also Navy entomologists that study infectious diseases and mosquito-borne illnesses.

In the Pacific during WWII, malaria, which is carried by mosquitos, accounted for more casualties than combat. Consequently, the military formed special teams to fight malaria and other insect-borne disease. These teams eventually became part of the Navy Medical Service Corps after the war.

Today, malaria is still prevalent in many Navy and Marines deployment zones. The Navy Entomology Center of Excellence, where many Medical Service Corps officers work, is continually researching insect repellents and other methods to better combat mosquito-borne diseases.

In addition to all the research it undertakes, the Navy Medical Service Corps also provides healthcare support to military doctors and their patients stationed around the world.

Photo credit U.S. Navy/DVIDS

Lt. Kyle Shepard was named the Military Audiologist Association’s 2016 Elizabeth Guild Award recipient for his efforts across Camp Lejeune.

Naval audiologists work with sailors and Marines to help prevent hearing loss, one of the most common injuries in the military. Navy Medical Service Corps audiologists are also responsible for providing hearing care to Navy and Marine Corps spouses and their children.

Similarly, Navy physical and occupational therapists work in hospitals or aboard vessels to help prevent and treat a slew of major and minor service-related injuries.

From helping service members learn to walk after a combat injury to simply teaching a sailor how to better battle the constant physical stress working within the tight confines of a ship, there are plenty of ways Navy physical and occupational therapists step in to help today’s warriors.

-This story was originally published on USO.org in 2019. It has been updated in 2020.

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