A printed form with AMS seal of bigraphical history of Clara Barton.

Strange Bedfellows in the AAMS Archives

By James Labosier ~

The Association of American Military Surgeons (AAMS) originated with only fifty members as the Association of Military Surgeons of the National Guard of the United States in 1891. Its founder, U.S. military surgeon Nicholas Senn, envisioned an organization dedicated to “the advancement of military and accidental surgery and all things pertaining to the health and welfare of the civilian soldier.”

During its first ten years of existence, the Association established a monthly journal and expanded its membership rolls to include surgeons from the Army, Navy, Public Health Service, and Veterans Administration. In practical terms the Association sought to standardize and disseminate emerging military medical knowledge and practices throughout all American medical military branches.

By the early 1900s, recognizing that it had grown well beyond its initial constituency and seeking the benefits of a non-profit organization, the Association sought a congressional charter. The newly renamed Association of Military Surgeons of the United States stated purpose in the 1903 enactment reflected its broadened mandate:

…advancing the knowledge of military surgery, medicine, and sanitation in the medical departments of the Army, the Navy, and the Marine-Hospital Service of the United States and of the militia of the different states, and to increase the efficiency of the different services by mutual association and the consideration of matters pertaining to the medico-military service of the United States in peace and in war.

All members were required to fill out an application form detailing their personal, medical, and military histories. Those submitted under the Association’s new title, beginning about 1900 through about 1915 have been preserved in the National Library of Medicine’s modern manuscripts collections and include records of many interesting and notable persons.

Two of these notables, contemporaries with an unexpected connection, though different in nearly every way are linked by their membership in AAMS—strange bedfellows indeed.

According to AAMS records, Clara Barton, (1821–1912) founder of the American Red Cross, was born in Oxford, a town of 1,500 residents on the French river in central Massachusetts while Johannes Friedrich August von Esmarch, (1823–1908) pioneer in developing battlefield first aid, was born in Tönning, a city in the Schleswig-Holstein region near the North Sea in what is now Germany.

Von Esmarch was a prominent surgeon who devoted most of his career to military surgery, even serving as Surgeon General of the Prussian army during the Franco Prussian War. Although Barton worked closely with the Union army during the American Civil War and was put in charge of hospitals, she never held a military rank.

Barton’s wartime hospital activities are well-documented and we know for certain that she never performed surgery on a wounded soldier. On the other hand, von Esmarch, directed and conducted surgery at military hospitals for decades.

Maybe the only thing Barton and von Esmarch have in common is their membership in an organization for which neither of them was technically qualified. Clara Barton was an American and Friedrich von Esmarch was a military surgeon but neither was an American military surgeon.

Among the 1500 individual membership records of American military surgeons contained in this collection are sporatic inclusions from Asia, Europe, Central and South America. Evidently, though each circumstance may differ, certain persons were invited to join the Association as honorary members.

Much in the same sense that one should not judge a book by its cover, these excerpts from this collection remind a researcher that a title is not necessarily fully consistent with its contents and that Chinese army surgeon Chung Wan Pang may be found where you least expect him.

View the digitized Association of Military Surgeons of the United States Biographical Sketch Collection in NLM Digital Collections or explore the finding aid for the complete collection description and inventory.

James Labosier is Associate Curator for the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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