An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.


The Bethesda Chronicles, Part 1: Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Medical Center

19 February 2024

From André B. Sobocinski

On Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, Secretary of the Navy Carlos del Toro, Rear Adm. Darin Via, the Navy Surgeon General, Governor of Maryland Wes Moore, Mrs. Dawn Moore, the first lady of Maryland and Capt. Melissa Austin, Commanding Officer, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, took part in a dedication ceremony to celebrate the “Bethesda” name as
On Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, Secretary of the Navy Carlos del Toro, Rear Adm. Darin Via, the Navy Surgeon General, Governor of Maryland Wes Moore, Mrs. Dawn Moore, the first lady of Maryland and Capt. Melissa Austin, Commanding Officer, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, took part in a dedication ceremony to celebrate the “Bethesda” name as the new class of expeditionary medical ship.

It is a name that has carried tremendous weight and symbolism since 1942.

From its years as the National Naval Medical Center and the “Flagship of Navy Medicine” to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center-era—Bethesda has been a place of healing, and where military warriors, their families and even world leaders come for the finest in military care.

Bethesda has been Navy Medicine’s industrial base helping to ensure we have trained, confident and mission-ready personnel for the fleet and Marine force.

And it is a place where so many individuals who have chosen a life of service have dedicated themselves to the greater cause.

In his remarks at the dedication event, Secretary del Toro commended the men and women who served at Bethesda through the years and, also, made reference to an individual who played a foundational part in the medical center’s story—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Without a doubt, the story of Bethesda could not be told without mention of our 32nd president, a man who put the “president” in Bethesda’s most famous moniker, “The President’s Hospital.” Few individuals have had a bigger impact on the medical center’s story—from its design to its location—than Roosevelt.

In Aug.1937, not long after Congress authorized a new home for the Naval Medical Center Washington, D.C., Roosevelt became personally invested in the project. And this would not have been a surprise to anyone who knew him. The former Assistant Secretary of the Navy’s passion for the sea service was perhaps only rivaled by that of his distant relative Theodore Roosevelt. This love for the Navy was reflected in his precious collections of Navy ship models, and rare antique prints depicting the US Navy and its early heroes. During his tenure as president, he often called upon naval officers, including Navy physicians, as confidants, and when referring to the “blue and gold,” it was always, “my Navy.”

The president also viewed himself as an amateur architect and during his 12 years in office, Roosevelt influenced the location and appearance of many federal buildings and monuments including the Pentagon and the Jefferson Memorial.

Between 1937 and 1938, Roosevelt along with the Rear Adm. Perceval Rossiter, the 18th Navy Surgeon General—and sometimes with the Senate and House chairmen of the Naval Affairs Committees Senator David Walsh of Massachusetts and Rep. Carl Vinson of Georgia—scouted some 80 prospective sites in the D.C. metro area for the new naval medical center. It was on the afternoon of July 5, 1938, just a mile from what was still the “village” of Bethesda, Maryland, and across Wisconsin Avenue from the construction site for the future National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Center, that Roosevelt found the new home for the medical center.

“We will build it here,” said President Roosevelt while leaning over the side of his automobile and striking the ground with his walking cane near a cabbage patch. Despite many miles, detours and discussions, Roosevelt was sold on a particular landmark—a spring and springhouse located in a gully that reminded him of the biblical pool of Bethesda. Like his beloved Warm Springs retreat, the new medical center in Bethesda would be a place of healing.

Even before selecting the site, Roosevelt took an interest in its design. As early as October 1936, while on a reelection tour stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, Roosevelt became enamored with the state capital building. The capital building’s tower stood 400 feet which Roosevelt noted as a “great and worthy structure. . .[that] all the people of America . . .ought to come and see.” On Dec. 13, 1937, Roosevelt sketched out his designs for the new medical center, more than a little inspired by the Nebraska state capital.

Roosevelt championed his design plans and likened his proposed medical center tower to a “high church tower in the English countryside.” In a letter to his uncle Frederic Delano, of the National Park Planning Board (the approving authority for the design and location of the medical center), he wrote: “The tower is of such great beauty of design that it will be a landmark for generations to come, in what will for generations to come remain a wooded area even if suburbs extend as far out as that. . .I sometimes think of the English countryside.”

Roosevelt’s sketches were turned over to the Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks (the forerunner to today’s Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command) who engaged French-born American architect Paul Cret to develop plans with their design team led by Frederick W. Southworth. President Roosevelt would have been familiar with both individuals.

The French-born Cret was a world-renowned architect whose designs included the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, and the Folger Library in Washington, D.C. His Eternal Light Peace Memorial at Gettysburg Battlefield was even dedicated by Roosevelt in 1938.

Southworth was a project manager with the Bureau of Yards and Docks specializing in naval hospital design. In 1920, he was heavily involved in designing the original Naval Hospital San Diego when Roosevelt was still Assistant Secretary of the Navy; and later designed the art-deco Naval Hospital Philadelphia that opened in 1935.

The final Cret-Southworth design greatly expanded and refined Roosevelt’s drawings into a 20-story tower “rising above a series of interconnecting three- and four-story pavilions.” The tower’s floors were to be in the shape of a Geneva Cross with the greatest length being approximately 106 feet.

Roosevelt’s other recommendations for the medical center extended to the surrounding landscape, some of which were ultimately adopted. These included the installation of an “old English sheep fence,” a flagpole terrace, a semicircular entrance drive, extensive tree planting (including trees taken from the land where the National Airport was constructed), and a recreational lake (later named after Rear Adm. L.O. Stone, a commanding officer of Bethesda).

Construction on the new center began on June 29, 1939. On Nov. 11, 1940, Roosevelt laid the cornerstone and returned to dedicate it on Aug. 31, 1942—the hundredth anniversary of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED), the administrative headquarters of the Navy Medical Department.

Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. Within a matter of weeks, Congress presented a bill proposing the name of the medical center be changed to “Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval Medical Center.” Despite support from the Navy and the Navy Medical Department, it was ultimately decided that the best tribute to Roosevelt was to keep the name of the chosen by him, the: “National Naval Medical Center.”

Regardless, what it is known as today, this national medical center remains a special monument to what truly mattered to Roosevelt and the real reason he became so involved in this project—to establish a place of healing.

As he proclaimed in his dedication address: “Let this hospital . . .stand, for all men to see throughout all the years, as a monument to our determination to work and to fight until the time comes when the human race shall have that true health in body and mind and spirit which can be realized only in a climate of equity and faith.”


Bowen, E.C. (1984) Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland (1939-1984). Naval Medical Command, National Capital Region. Bethesda, Maryland.

Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (u.p. 1946). “The National Naval Medical Center: Early History and Establishment.” Administrative History of the U.S. Medical Department in World War II.

Galloway, C.B. (18 September 1964). “A Report on the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland.” U.S. Navy Medical News Letter, 44(6).

Johnson, L.W. (4 October 1950.) “The Navy Builds a Medical Center.” The Military Surgeon, 107(4).

Schmidt, R.P. (Winter 2009.) “A Tower in Nebraska: How FDR Found Inspiration for the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.” Prologue Magazine, 41(4).


President Roosevelt was honored by the Navy as a namesake of the Midway-class aircraft carrier Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42) (1945-1977) and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Roosevelt (DDG-80) (Commissioned in 2000).

Guidance-Card-Icon Dept-Exclusive-Card-Icon