NMRI and the global R&D enterprise of Dawn of Navy Medicine

NMRI and the global R&D enterprise of Dawn of Navy Medicine

“I don’t know what you’ve heard about the NMRI in terms of its reputation with those who can evaluate research. From what I have heard, it appears that he has already achieved stature in the scientific world and made contributions to research in his short life of which a much older institution could be justly proud. .
–Capt. EG Hakansson, Commanding Officer, Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI), 1946


Before there was the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC) there was the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI).

On October 27, 1942, the NMRI was established at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) in Bethesda, Maryland. Over the next three years, its cadre of military and civilian scientists and researchers, some of the nation’s brightest minds, embarked. on an ambitious “in-depth research” mission covering all aspects of military “problems”. Many of these efforts had an immediate impact on warfighters and accomplished what Rear Admiral Ross McIntire, the Navy’s Surgeon General, summed up as “the prevention of disease, the alleviation of suffering, and the rescue of lives”.

Behnke’s vision:

During World War II, naval medical research was far from uncharted territory. During the first decades of the 20th century, the medical researcher Adm. Edward Stitt and others had established the School of Naval Medicine as the nation’s premier center for tropical medicine and naval hygiene research. And the interwar years (1919-1941) saw a wide range of pioneering medical research conducted at the Naval Medical School in Washington, DC, Submarine Base New London, Connecticut, the unit Experimental Diving, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C., Air Force Bases at Pensacola, Philadelphia, and San Diego, and, of course, aboard ships at sea. During this time, Navy medical personnel helped pierce mysteries like decompression sickness, anti-G forces, oversaw the development of liquid plasma, led the development and testing of tetanus toxoid, and a means to combat heat stress aboard surface ships.

Captain Albert Behnke, MC, USN, one of the Navy’s leading medical researchers of the 1930s, is often considered one of the fathers of the NMRI. Behnke is best known today for his pioneering work on decompression sickness, human body composition, and his support of the USS Squalus submarine rescue effort, but Behnke was also a leading researcher on the thermal stress. While serving on a board to study air conditioning in relation to damage control, Behnke conducted a series of studies aboard the ships Nevada, Tuscaloosa, and New Orleans examining the impact of environments on board on combat effectiveness. The operational value of this work caught the attention of Rear Admiral Ross McIntire, who later served as both surgeon general and chief medical officer to President Franklin Roosevelt. McIntire shared Behnke’s work with Roosevelt who took an interest. Having Roosevelt’s ear, Behnke began advocating for a laboratory dedicated to conducting medical research on issues affecting the Navy and Marine Corps. Roosevelt supported the plan, and Behnke got his wish. On October 27, 1942, the NMRI opened from Building 17 on the National Naval Medical Center campus in Bethesda.

The NMRI originally consisted of 13 officers, 50 enlisted men and one civilian. By the end of the war, the Institute’s staff had grown to some 81 officers and 125 enlisted servicemen.

Board owners included Capt. (later Rear Adm.) William Mann, MC, USN and Cmdr. Robert H. Draeger who served as NMRI’s first CO and XO respectively. At the time, Mann was best known as one of the leading strategic thinkers in Navy medicine and decades earlier had helped pioneer the concept of “field medical training” at Quantico. Prior to reporting to the NMRI, Draeger had achieved some fame as the inventor of a microfilm camera originally designed to photograph publications at sea and later used by libraries. During the NMRI’s inaugural year, Mann and Draeger were joined by Dr. Andrew C. Ivy, the institute’s first scientific director (1942-1943). Ivy, a professor of physiology at Northwestern University, later rose to prominence as one of the developers of the Nuremberg Medical Code, a set of research principles for human experimentation.

Organized into four research departments – Naval Environmental Medicine, Naval Preventive Medicine, Dental Research, and Equipment Research – NMRI’s mission became increasingly specialized during the war.
In July 1943, the four research departments were reorganized into “facilities” for: Animal laboratories, Aviation, Bacteriology, Biochemistry, Biophysics, Chemistry and dosage, Analysis, Experimental dentistry, Diving and underwater physiology, Heating, Air conditioning and ventilation, Industrial hygiene, a library, nutrition, pathology, design of personal equipment, pharmacology and toxicology, physiology, psychology and statistics, psychometrics and metabolism, hematology, technical workshops, experimental surgery and virology.

Early NMRI Research Projects:

The NMRI classified its early research projects into five categories: general (affecting the navy as a whole), maritime medicine aboard surface ships, underwater and diving medicine, aviation medicine, and field medicine.

Throughout World War II, the NMRI investigated virtually every health issue in the Navy and Marine Corps; and there’s no denying that the organization looked like a “Q Branch” medical version of the 007 novels and movies. , insect repellents and fungistatic agents, tested new uses for penicillin, invented resuscitation devices, explored prevention of the general effects of cold water immersion, new treatments for seasickness, transportation methods for whole blood, established the Navy’s first mobile nutrition units, and oversaw new treatments and prevention techniques to combat tropical diseases (including the treatment of malaria, scrub typhus, and schistosomiasis).

But, all of these developments would follow in the wake of his first assigned project: devising a foolproof method for desalinating seawater and developing special food rations for the unfortunate castaways of war.

Although there are no official statistics on the number of World War II sailors, marines, merchant seamen, military aviators and others waiting to be rescued at sea during World War II World War II, a conservative estimate is tens of thousands. Following the loss of their ships or aircraft, these castaways often faced adverse weather conditions, the threat of secondary enemy attacks, and sharks. Even though they escaped these dangers, and even though they suffered no injury or injury, they still needed food until an eventual rescue. Without food, the average person can survive for about 21 days; and without water for about three days.

In early 1943, NMRI personnel began experimenting with the chemical treatment of seawater so that it could be drunk by personnel adrift on life rafts. In February 1943, NMRI physiologist Lt. Cmdr. Clair Spealman, H(S), USNR developed a pioneering multi-process filtration system for seawater desalination. A similar, but simpler method was developed shortly thereafter by NMRI in conjunction with Permutit Water Conditioning Company. The “Permutit-Navy Desalting Kit”, as it was called, contained a plastic drinking bag with a cloth filter at its base and five briquettes of chemical desalting charcoal. The castaway would collect the seawater in the drinking bag, put a briquette in it, seal the bag and shake it. Within 20 minutes they would have access to a pint of fresh water which they could drink through a tube under the filter. At the end of the war, the kit was adopted by the army, the navy as well as by American Airlines.

Food was another concern for NMRI researchers who sought to develop a ready supply of emergency rations that could “lend themselves to easy consumption and efficient metabolism”. Known as the ‘NMRI Emergency Ration’, these small boxes consisted of high fat caramel tablets, hard fruit candy (containing citric acid to help saliva flow) , malted milk tablets, chewing gum, multivitamin tablets and a waterproof pouch. In 1944, the United States Navy adopted these emergency rations as part of a survival kit for airmen as well as to serve as the “United States Navy emergency ration for life rafts”.

A heritage :

Navy Surgeon Ross McIntire once described the medical department’s mission during World War II as “…maintaining naval tradition by keeping as many men to as many guns as possible.” It is undeniable that through its vast production of basic and applied research, NMRI has helped the medical department to better achieve this mission.

In the decades that followed, the NMRI was joined by other medical laboratories and research detachments around the world, all united in fulfilling a central mission to improve health, readiness and performance. navy and navy personnel. Through reorganizations and a new vision of the R&D enterprise, the NMRI evolved from a hub for naval medical research activities to a subordinate laboratory of the Naval Medical Research and Development Command (1974- 1998) for finally, in 1998, a command of the headquarters Echelon-4. known as the Naval Medical Research Center.

Today, NMRC’s mission and role in the U.S. Navy remains more vital than ever and stands as “the premier Navy Medicine research organization with the vision of world-class and relevant medical and health research solutions on the operational plan”.


About CNRM. Naval Medical Research Center, Retrieved from: https://www.med.navy.mil/Naval-Medical-Research-Center/

The History of the Medical Department in World War II: A Narrative and Illustrated Volume (NAVMED P-5031), Volume 1. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1953.

Ullman, V. Research in preventive medicine. The Hospital Corps Quarterly, April 1945.

Date taken: 26.10.2022
Date posted: 26.10.2022 11:37
Story ID: 432035
Location: FALLS CHURCH, Virginia, USA

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