NAMRU-4's new home in 1948. Originally established at the Naval Hospital Dublin, Georgia, the laboratory relocated to Great Lakes in 1948. (Photo courtesy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Historian)
In 1948, the Navy was becoming further entrenched in the post-war period of demobilization and consolidation of services under the newly created Department of Defense (DoD).
At naval hospitals, clinical research programs were inaugurated leading to the first use of antibiotics like streptomycin in the treatment of tuberculosis and oral penicillin as a venereal disease prophylaxis.
The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED)’s Research Division—founded at the beginning of World War II—would continue to set policy and manage resourcing for the greater naval medical research program.
In Bethesda, Maryland, the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI) was leading an ambitious program of applied research. The year 1948 at NMRI was highlighted by Dr. Theodor Benzinger’s formative work in the field of human calorimetry. Five years later Benzinger would be credited with developing the first human gradient calorimetry device.
Beyond the D.C. beltway, medical research flourished in the fields of aviation, undersea/submarine and field medicine and infectious diseases. Active medical institutions in operation included the Naval Medical Field Research Laboratory in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; the Naval Submarine Medical Laboratory in New London, Connecticut; the School of Aviation Medicine and Research (SAM) at the Naval Air Training Command in Pensacola, Florida; the Naval Air Materiel Center (NAMC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the Physiological Test Unit, Naval Air Station, in Patuxent River, Maryland; the Naval Unit, Chemical Warfare Service in Fort Detrick, Maryland; the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit (NAMRU) No. 1 in Berkeley, California; U.S. NAMRU No. 3 in Cairo, Egypt; and U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 4 (NAMRU No. 4).
NAMRU No. 4 would relocate from Georgia to Great Lakes during that same year. Established as the “Rockefeller Research Unit” at the Naval Hospital Dublin, Georgia in 1945, the unit’s mission had originally been the study and treatment of rheumatic fever. At Great Lakes, NAMRU No. 4 expanded its role into other diseases affecting naval recruits, especially the study of acute respiratory illnesses.
With the transition from propeller to “swept wing” aircraft, the year of 1948 would find aviation medical researchers delving deeper into topics like disorientation, G-forces and ways for lowering blackout rates in pilots. In 1948, the Navy began the construction of the human centrifuge in Johnsville, Pennsylvania, —destined to become the largest in the world—and a steam-powered catapult at the NAMC for studying acceleration and deceleration.
In February 1948, Navy Medicine would take part in the legendary “Cairo to Capetown” scientific expedition. Co-sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley, the effort would see teams of Navy medical researchers travelling some 19,660 miles across the African continent photographing and collecting specimens while studying debilitating diseases like trypanosomiasis (African sleeping sickness), amoebic dysentery, blood filaria, hookworm, leprosy, malaria, relapsing-fever, schistosomiasis, and yellow fever. Along the way, medical personnel travelled through villages collecting medical intelligence, providing smallpox vaccinations, assisting in mosquito control efforts, administering chloroquine to malarial cases, donating medical supplies, and treating everything from fractures and hernias to obstetrical cases and pneumonia.
Notable research projects during 1948 included: assessing food rations aboard submarines; studying the effect of anti-malarial drugs in mosquitoes infected with Plasmodium Falciparum; examining methods for routine disinfection of barber instruments; the exploration of an aerial delivery of medical supplies by parachute drop; field testing an experimental model splint; looking at the effects of snorkeling on submarine personnel; improving helium-oxygen diving techniques; conducting trials of a new dysentery vaccine; and executing an entomological survey of the Eastern Caroline Islands.
The year 1948 also saw the advent of atomic medicine under the helm of radiologist Capt. (later Rear Adm.) Charles F. Behrens, MC, USN (1896-1974). Behrens had been the founding director of the Navy Medicine’s Atomic Defense Division in 1947, and would help spearhead new training for radiological safety problems and usher in the clinical use of radioisotopes and photodosimetry in the Navy. A year later, he would author Atomic Medicine, the seminal work on the nascent field.