A carved stone plaque featuring an American with the dates 1917 and 1918 to either side and In Memory beneath..

The Spirit of Memorial Day

By Kenneth M. Koyle

The origin of the Memorial Day observance in America is disputed, with several states and communities claiming primacy as the first to hold an official celebration or first to place a holiday on the books, but we know that it began in the years following the U.S. Civil War. Decoration Day, as the occasion was known then, was marked by families and friends decorating the graves of loved ones who had died in war, often accompanied by speeches, proclamations, and ceremonies. The name has changed over time, and for many Americans Memorial Day has come to symbolize the beginning of summer, celebrated with barbecues and parties instead of the somber traditions of the past. But the true spirit and intent of the holiday remains the same: recognizing and honoring the sacrifice of military personnel who have given their lives in service to the nation.

A crowd of men and women in military uniform attend an outdoor ceremony.
U.S. Army Base Hospital 20, Chatel Guyon, France, May 30, 1918
National Library of Medicine #a03183

This spirit was evident in the medical units supporting U.S. forces in the first World War, including U.S. Army Base Hospital 20, shown here conducting a Memorial Day service in front of the Main Surgical Building of the hospital in Chatel Guyon, France on May 30, 1918.

A bas-relief plaque featuring an American eagle and a caduceus.
Memorial Tablet, circa 1923
National Library of Medicine #a024539

After the war ended, the surviving members of these same medical units wanted to ensure that their fallen comrades were remembered by future generations. They collected voluntary donations for a large bronze memorial tablet, soliciting contributions of $1 from Medical Department workers by placing notices in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the American Journal of Nursing, and other publications popular among medical professionals. The response was so great that instead of a single tablet, the medical department was able to have four bas-relief plaques created, and placed them at key Army bases around the country—Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, home of the Army’s Medical Field Service School at that time; the medical school at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco, California; and Fitzsimons Army Hospital (named for Lieutenant William T. Fitzsimons, an Army doctor and the first American officer killed in the war) in Denver, Colorado.

Many Americans will be enjoying a day off work and perhaps a trip to the beach, a family cookout, or just a relaxing time with loved ones this Memorial Day. However you spend the day, keep in mind the spirit of the occasion, and remember those who gave their lives in defense of freedom.

Portrait of Kenneth M. KoyleKenneth M. Koyle is Deputy Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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