Hospital Corpsmen: U.S. Maritime Service trains Pursers for combination medical-paper work on ships

Mast Magazine, May 1944

Steamship companies are now putting on board their vessels combination Purser-Hospital Corpsmen, also referred to as Pharmacist Mates, to handle both the paper work and sick bay treatment, the latter being an innovation in the shipping business and one that is fast making our seamen the best cared for of any merchant mariners in the world.

The time was not far distant when first aid was given in a rather vague manner and medicines dispensed with the nonchalance associated with a drug store clerk whipping up an ice cream soda. One old skipper, the story goes, had his bottles of drugs and medicines numbered, using No. 1 for colds, No. 2 for sprains, etc. A deck hand came to him for treatment one day and the skipper analyzed the case and reached for bottle No. 11. But, alas! Bottle No. 11 was empty. This didn't discourage the captain. He poured half of No. 5 and half of No. 6 into the empty bottle and carried on.

The story, a little distorted perhaps, illustrates a point. Before the war, there were no competent, trained members of the crew who could administer first aid properly on most of our ships. But the exigencies of war brought about the change. Merchant ships, active in all battle areas, had injured men on board who needed medical attention -- and the number was increasing.

Casualties among Merchant Seamen, in comparison to Navy casualties, were at the ratio of four to one at the beginning of the war. The problem of finding trained medical men was also a tough job. Professional men had been taken into the armed forces at an astounding rate. The idea of putting an extra man on board to handle the job alone also didn't seem reasonable. It was therefore decided to combine the position with that of the Purser, who could take four months of training and return to sea in his new role.

Founding of Hospital Corps School at the Sheepshead Bay
The Maritime Service began, on December 7, 1942, a Hospital Corps School at the Sheepshead Bay training station with Surgeon S. S. Heilwell (R), U. S. Public Health Service, in charge. Of the original class of 331 students, 239 were graduated on March 12, 1943.

Quota for the school was soon increased to 600 students, 50 to be admitted weekly from the training stations after careful scrutiny by examining boards. The Junior Assistant Purser School and the Hospital Corps Schools were combined according to an official directive dated March 29, 1943. The first Pursers who left sea duty to attend the school came aboard the station August 10, 1943. By January 1, 1944, there were 600 combination men at sea; the school had graduated 1,324 men up to this time.

The program itself is unique in many respects and has acquired the attentive and inquisitive eye of other branches of the service. Men are trained primarily for independent duty as Hospital Corpsmen on transports, tankers and freighters, whereas Army and Navy men occupying similar roles are assistants to the medical officer on board.

Skills and Duties of Purser-Hospital Corpsman
Every Purser-Hospital Corpsman is trained to act alone, to rely on his own knowledge and experience to handle every situation that arises on the ship. He is responsible only to the Captain and is the health, hygiene and sanitation authority for his vessel.

Dr. Heilwell underlines the point that these men are not doctors when they complete the course. However, they are skilled and competent to treat wounds, administer first aid and treat the ordinary ailments of seamen, keep up the sanitation standards of the vessel, help to prevent epidemics and the spread of diseases from one port to another, and apply the latest medical methods and drugs (the sulfa family and penicillin) to ailing crew members.

Future Hospital Corpsman learns anatomy
Future Hospital Corpsman learns anatomy

To give these men the essential knowledge to fulfill this tremendous responsibility, the Hospital Corps School has designed a program of study which includes courses in Pharmacy, clinical laboratory, hygiene and sanitation, emergency treatment and first aid, and nursing. Men learn how to give "shots," treat compound fractures, administer blood plasma, suture wounds, and give a sponge bath.

Class members include Apprentice Seamen of 19 and 20 and old mariners of 50 and 60 who have been sailing most of their lives. Dr. Heilwell said the old timers had little difficulty with the work, were conscientious and usually came through with good marks.


Pharmacy Lab Pharmacy Lab: This Purser took a leave of absence from his shipping company to enter the Hospital Corps school at the Sheepshead Bay training station. Classes in pharmacy give the men practical experience in compounding drugs. Uses of drugs and medicines are taught in detail. at microscope

These men will not only serve as corpsmen during the war but will carry their knowledge into peacetime practice. Even now the American Merchant Marine leads all other nations in the medical care of seamen; shipping companies are becoming aware of the program's importance, and a definite step in the proper direction is the incorporation of sick bays on the new type Victory ships.

Preventative as well as emergency treatment is part of the corpsman's duties. The ship's crew is checked for immunization at the beginning of every voyage and if typhoid, smallpox, tetanus and typhus inoculations are needed, the corpsman administers the needle. Yellow fever, cholera and malaria immunization is also given, depending upon the destination of the ship. During the sign-on, the corpsman gives Wassermann and chest plate examinations and a general physical to all members of the crew.


Examining a member of the crew aboard ship Standard List of Medical Supplies
Examining a member of the crew aboard ship Each ship is issued a "Standard List of Medical Supplies" for use by the Purser-Pharmacist's Mate


Praise for Purser-Hospital Corpsmen
There have been many instances of excellent work on the part of corpsmen since they've been trained and sent out to sea. The following are excerpts from one letter written by a transport surgeon in the Army Medical Corps:

"It became necessary for me to prepare for and enter upon the conduct of an emergency operation, appendectomy, on a soldier who was then a passenger on the said vessel.

"Mr. Alexander Brand, Ship's Purser and Pharmacist's Mate, immediately volunteered to assist me in all the necessary preparations, both of the patient and the operating room paraphernalia. He thereupon entered upon such tasks with a remarkable attitude of unselfishness and with a high degree of technical and professional skill.

"During the course of the actual operation, Mr. Brand was an invaluable aid to me, since he acted as my anesthetist. He remained in surgery for a period of two hours, constantly continuing his anesthesia. His skill was of such a high quality as to be remarkable in one who is not a professional."

Steamship companies also favor the plan and have cooperated with Maritime Service officials in releasing Pursers for the hospital training. Some companies even give the Purser-Hospital Corpsmen further training upon graduation to familiarize the employee with the medical supplies used on their ships, use of various drugs and medical procedure, preliminary diagnosis and related subjects.

Choosing Trainees for the Program
Apprentice Seamen are chosen for Hospital-Purser training after they're successfully completed a series of examinations, have an above average mark in GCT and show a definite interest in both courses. A survey reveals that the men have an IQ average of 130 and two years of college. After completing their 12-week hospital course they enter a four-week training period in the Junior Assistant Purser school at Sheepshead Bay.

Pursers entering the hospital school are given ratings according to the length of time they've spent at sea. Those serving less than six months are given Chief Petty Officer ratings and those with more than six months at sea receive Ensign commissions. Of the 50 men who enter the school each week, 30 are Pursers.

Practical Hospital Experience
Following three months of rugged schooling in the subjects mentioned above, the corpsmen are sent to marine hospitals for practical training. They assist physicians in minor operations, give inoculations, treat patients in the emergency wards, and in general, get a chance to put into practice their classroom theory.


Emergency Treatment
Emergency Treatment: All phases of first aid, from broken backs to abdominal wounds, are covered in the 12-week course. Purser-Hospital Corpsmen spend a month in a marine hospital to add a realistic touch to their classroom work, assisting doctors and getting general hospital experience.

During their brief history, the corpsmen have at least started off on the right foot -- making a name for themselves. Letters of commendation from Army transport surgeons, captains of ships and shipping companies are indicative of the caliber of work that is being done. The transition from hit-or-miss pill doctor to a trained and dependable corpsman has been long in coming but now that the proper change has been made our Merchant Seamen will benefit as long as ships sail throughout the world.

Official List of Of Medical Supplies Issued to U.S. Merchant Ships During World War II by the War Shipping Administration

Mast Magazine May 1944
Mast Magazine August 1944
Mast Magazine May 1945

A former Pharmacist Mate, who later became a Doctor wrote:

The United States Maritime Service Training Station in Sheepshead Bay, NY had a Purser-Pharmacist training program which took about five months there and then about six weeks at a US Public Health Service Hospital (such as the one in Stapleton, Staten Island, NYC). Successful graduates were made Warrant Ships Clerk (HC), USMS and then were assigned, one to a Liberty Ship. On the ship this officer performed the clerical duties pertaining to such things as payroll, ships clearance, engine log, notices to Draft Boards, preparation of Coast Guard Discharges for the crew - as well as the medical duties aboard ship for routine and emergency care of the crew. The medical training was excellent and consisted of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, diagnosis and treatment of non-traumatic and traumatic symptoms, disease prevention and various procedures such as bandaging, application of splints, injection of analgesics and intra-venous fluids. The course was summarized in a hard-bound, 509 page book, published by theU. S.Government Printing Office in October 1945 called" USMS Hospital Corps School Manual.

United States Maritime Service

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