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. The Medical Service Corps is made up of Naval officers who serve mainly as research scientists and medical specialists.
The History of 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.
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.
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 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.
Leading the Way in Frozen (and Shark) Blood Research
While the Navy Medical Service Corps serves a variety of functions, one of its key roles 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 Navy began researching ways to freeze blood so it could extend its shelf life and make it more portable. Navy Medical Service Corps scientists and technicians 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 Navy 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, like Lt. Cmdr. Edna MCormick, would use a special technique to thaw and wash the blood – removing the cryopreservative chemical – to prepare it for medical use.
During the Vietnam war, thousands of service members received life-saving blood treatments thanks to the Navy Medical Service Corps’ scientific breakthroughs on frozen blood.
Today, Navy biomedical researchers continue to study human blood in addition to investigating other species’ blood – like sharks. Naval researchers are currently investigating if antibodies present in shark blood may help in the detection and defense against chemical and biological weapons.
Innovating Science in Food Poisoning, Mosquitos and Climate Change
While some Navy Medical Service Corps are busy studying blood, others are working to prevent, treat and educate military and civilian communities about food and water-borne illnesses caused by bacteria like E.coli and salmonella.
In addition to teaching U.S. troops, military families and civilian communities about food and water sanitation safety, Navy Medical Service Corps scientists often provide their expertise to communities around the world located near Navy or Marines deployment or peacekeeping zones. In the wake of the 2005 tsunami in Indonesia, U.S. sailors worked with local officials to combat cholera and educate civilian populations about the importance of waterborne disease prevention during the cleanup process.
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 Medical Service Corps’ Entomology Center of Excellence is continually researching insect repellents and other methods to better combat mosquito-borne diseases, like malaria and—most recently—Zika, that pose a threat to military readiness and civilian populations.
As if studying infection diseases and food, water and mosquito-borne illnesses wasn’t enough, the Navy is also at the forefront of climate science.
Navy meteorologists and other scientists in the Navy Medical Service Corps at the Naval Research Laboratory have been studying the effect wildfires have on the climate and the potential impact on naval operations and the country.
Caring for Humans
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.
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.