According to the Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, more than twenty ships, past and present, have been named after doctors who served their country as members of the United States Navy. This comes as no surprise, given the remarkable heroism and self-sacrifice many of these officers displayed in service to their fellow Sailors and their country.
What is remarkable is that the United States Navy has not seen fit to name a ship or medical facility after Edward Cutbush, the only surgeon listed as being hired by the Navy prior to 1800 and almost universally regarded as the father of Medical Corps of the United States Navy. Although 70 years would pass between Cutbush’s hiring and the passage of the Congressional Act establishing the United States Navy Medical Corps, he laid the foundations and groundwork that those who followed after him would build upon.
Cutbush’s first stint as a military doctor came during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, when the governor of Pennsylvania named him the senior surgeon for the state’s militia. His official entry into the Navy was on the 24th of June, 1799, when he was commissioned as a surgeon and assigned to the frigate USS United States. Before the year was out, Cutbush took the bold step of giving the entire crew a smallpox vaccine, even though Edward Jenner’s pamphlet describing the procedure had been published just a year earlier. Another measure Cutbrush advocated was dispensing lemon juice to sailors in order to prevent scurvy, making him the first American Naval medical professional to take such a position.
Throughout his career, Cutbush served at shore installations and aboard ships at sea. As a surgeon on the USS Constitution, he took part in the blockade of Barbary ports conducted by Commodore Edward Preble (1802 and 1803), and he was on hand when Tripoli was bombarded in 1804. He was in charge of Naval Hospital Syracuse, which he established in 1804 (though an order of the Secretary of the Navy) to deliver medical treatment to the Sailors of the Mediterranean Fleet battling the Barbary pirates. In 1806, Cutbush was transferred to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which eventually led to his operation of a Naval hospital at New Castle, Delaware. It was during his time at the Philadelphia Navy Yard that he wrote Observations on the Means of Preserving the Health of Soldiers and Sailors; and on the Duties of the Medical Department of the Army and Navy; With Remarks on Hospitals and their Internal Arrangement.
Cutbush was transferred to the Naval Hospital in Washington D.C. in 1813; when the British burned Washington, Cutbush was out on the battlefield assisting in the treatment and evacuation of the wounded. In 1818, he was elevated to Senior Surgeon of the U.S. Navy, and was on the board that examined candidates for selection to the Navy’s medical service.
Although Cutbush’s Naval career was cut short because of his political leanings—he backed John Quincy Adams in his losing bid against Andrew Jackson in 1828, and Jackson subsequently “demoted” him with an assignment far below his statute—his dedication to the health of Soldiers and Sailors can never be forgotten. That same spirits can be found in the hundreds of Doctors who, placing duty to their country and fellow man over the significantly higher financial rewards of private practice, have chosen to become members of the Medical Corps of the United States Navy.