Seamen's Sanctuary: THE MARINE HOSPITAL SERVICE

By McLaren, Robert T. | Sea Classics, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Seamen's Sanctuary: THE MARINE HOSPITAL SERVICE


McLaren, Robert T., Sea Classics


Generations of America's Merchant Mariners looked upon these Meccas of healing as renowned sanctuaries all their own

Years ago, when I was a young American Merchant Seaman, I was treated at a Marine Hospital Dental Clinic. I was informed by my ship's purser that I was entitled to this service if performed no later than 90 days after the date of my last USCG discharge. I thought a brief history of the Service would be of interest. While researching the history, I came to realize the Marine Hospital Service (MHS) was the beginning of many health organizations Americans benefit from today.

The MHS was established by President John Adams on 16 July 1798 as an "Act for the relief of sick and disabled Merchant Seamen." It was not the large medical bureaucracy we know today. The Marine Hospital fund provided an important service to thousands of mariners who served in American sailing ships and steamers during the 19th century.

The Act establishing the Marine Hospitals not only dealt with major health problems of the time but also provided an incentive for the development of the American Merchant Marine. It was felt the Merchant Marine would stimulate foreign commerce and provide auxiliary support to the US Navy in the event of war. In 1799, Congress extended the benefits to include the officers and men of the US Navy as well as Merchant Seamen. This continued until 1811, when Congress authorized the establishment of a separate Naval Hospital Service.

The Act was based on an English precedent. In 1588, England emerged as a "sea power" by defeating the Spanish Armada. Recognizing the importance of seamen, the Crown created a Marine Hospital Program. It was funded through a tax of six-pence per month on the Royal Navy Seamen's wages. The program was expanded to include their Merchant Seamen as well.

The practice of providing health care seamen spread to the Colonies of British North America. Funding came from a variety of taxation schemes. Legislation passed by the US Congress was modified after the British system. The Marine Hospital System was placed under the Revenue Marine Division of the Treasury Department. Funds to pay physicians and build more hospitals were appropriated by taxing seamen 20 cents a month from their wages. The money was collected by ship captains from the crew and then given to the Customs Collectors at different ports. This theoretically entitled employed seamen to government-paid health care faculties. This program served as a stimulus for the development of hospitals in major port cities along the East Coast and the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers as well as the Great Lakes. The number of Marine Hospitals grew with the westward expansion of the American population. Waterborne commerce helped build the Midwest and create a need to build more hospitals. By 1820 approximately 20,000 men were working on the Ohio River alone.

The first Marine Hospital was constructed in 1807 at Castle Island, Boston, Massachusetts. Doctor Thomas Waterhouse, a professor at Massachusetts Medical College of Harvard University, was appointed Physician in Charge of the Boston Marine Hospital. Doctor Waterhouse introduced the practice of teaching medical students on the hospital wards, making a Marine Hospital the first teaching hospital in the United States. In 1837, Congress appropriated funds to purchase sites for Marine Hospitals in seven Mississippi Valley cities. These new hospitals were constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers in accordance with a standard architectural plan drafted by Robert Mills, who designed other public buildings and the Washington Monument in Washington, DC.

A loose network of Marine Hospitals, mainly in port cities, evolved. Between 1849 and 1859 new Marine Hospitals opened in San Francisco, New Orleans, Pittburgh, Louisville, Cleveland, Natchez, Paducah, Napoleon, Chicago, St. Louis, Evansville, Vicksburg, Detroit, Cincinnati, Burlington, and Geleal, Ohio. …

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