Medicine: All-American Surgeon

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Dr. Paul R. Hawley, tubby medical chief of the Veterans' Administration, loves to tell tall tales (he files his favorites in a little black book, which he carries around with him). An ardent student of military history, he also likes to debunk such heroes as General Custer (TIME, Aug. 18), and to refight old battles (once, toting an armload of Civil War books, he visited Gettysburg and reconstructed the battle so vividly that his account is now the official one taught at the Army War College).

Last week some of Dr. Hawley's pals got together in Boston to honor him and to listen to some Hawley-style history. For his "miracle" job in reorganizing veterans' medicine, the Association of Military Surgeons awarded Major General Hawley the Gorgas Medal.* Historian Hawley seized the occasion to boom an American hero whom few laymen had ever heard of. He nominated as the "alltime,

All-American medical officer" a Civil War surgeon named Jonathan Letterman.*

It was Letterman, Hawley is fond of explaining, who originated the system of medical field service now used by every army in the world. When the Civil War began, the Union had no medical service worth the name. There were no litter bearers and no means of taking wounded from the battlefield. At the Battle of Gaines's Mill the Army of the Potomac abandoned more than 2,500 wounded to the Confederates. After the second Battle of Bull Run, dying men lay on the battlefield for five days. The only escape for a wounded man was to be helped from the field by his comrades. This was a fact that able-bodied soldiers soon learned to take advantage of: a casualty who had suffered only a slight scratch was sometimes helped to the rear by seven or eight unhurt soldiers ("the Civil War version of the escape mechanism [now] known as 'psychoneurosis' ").

At 38, Letterman was medical chief of McClellan's Army of the Potomac. He developed the first organized ambulance corps, which passed its first test at the Battle of Antietam. The corps removed from the battlefield, in 24 hours, all of the 12,000 Union and Confederate wounded within the Union lines.

Letterman went on to develop the system of division field hospitals (and hospitals at railheads and embarkation points) which remained the basic structure of military medical care through World War II. But he died in comparative obscurity, seven years after the Civil War's end. "Compared with what Letterman did for the wounded soldier," says Hawley, "the contributions of Florence Nightingale seem small. . . ."

*Named for the Army's late Surgeon General William Crawford Gorgas, whose medical battle against yellow fever in the jungle made possible the building of the Panama Canal. *Who is not unsung. His name lives in the U.S. Army's Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco's Presidio.