Researching Tuberculosis Patients at an Army Hospital in New Mexico, 1899-1912
By Cody White
U.S. National Records and Archives Administration (Denver)
It started with a “heavy cold.” In May of 1904, U.S. Army Capt. Ward Pershing experienced “prolonged exposure” while marching from Fort Leavenworth to Topeka, and by June had developed a phlegmy cough.
The cold had only gotten worse the following April, when Pershing sought medical treatment at Fort Robinson. The examination confirmed the seriousness of the issue. The young captain had pulmonary tuberculosis, and the diagnosis earned Pershing a one-way ticket to the Army’s burgeoning tuberculosis research hospital, the U.S. Army General Hospital at Fort Bayard, in New Mexico Territory.
As he had during his war service a scant five years earlier, young Captain Pershing would again be fighting for his life, albeit in a much different setting.
Pershing’s medical story, told through treatment records and correspondence, can be found within Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Record Group 112), Army General Hospital Fort Bayard, New Mexico, held at the National Archives at Denver. The records dating from 1899 through 1912 highlight an important era of Army medicine as well as provide great genealogical value in the details they can provide regarding individuals.
Fort Bayard’s Beginning—And a New Mission
The Fort Bayard military reservation was established in 1866, when the security of nearby mining camps in the mountainous southwest corner of the New Mexico territory necessitated a military outpost.
Coincidentally in 1886, Fort Bayard was the first duty station of John J. “Blackjack” Pershing, Ward’s older brother, who later became General of the Armies following his celebrated World War I service. By the 1890s, with the West largely settled, the U.S. Army began closing many of the western outposts, but Fort Bayard was given a reprieve. It took up a new mission at the front of the Army’s battle against tuberculosis.
When the hospital at Fort Bayard was opened in 1899, the western United States had already long attracted people afflicted with tuberculosis who hoped the climate would cure them. John “Doc” Holliday traveled to the West, and into American folklore, largely on a quest to cure the tuberculosis that still ended up killing him. The Bureau of the Census estimated that in 1900, tuberculosis accounted for 20 percent of all deaths in the nation. Faced with such a staggering percentage, it is little surprise the disease was beginning to affect the Army’s manpower. As part of its quest to find a solution, the Army established the General Hospital at Fort Bayard.
The hospital’s rocky early years were marred by scandals and mismanagement, but in 1904 Maj. George E. Bushnell took command and led the institution to the forefront of tuberculosis research and care. While it was officially a U.S. Army installation, the patient population was mixed, with active duty and retired soldiers cared for alongside sailors, Marines, and even a few civilians. In 1907 Justice Charles Robb of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit spent the summer under the care of Fort Bayard’s physicians, admitted by the secretary of war to the hospital “upon the status of an officer.”
Fort Bayard Hospital Records: Three Types at the Archives
The three main categories of hospital records at the National Archives at Denver are patient files, correspondence, and returns, all of which can be valuable for genealogical research whether your ancestor was a patient or simply stationed at the hospital.
From the opening of the hospital until 1904, patient records were handwritten into ledgers called case histories. Organized sequentially by patient number, these volumes detail the evolving condition and treatment of patients. Clinical histories from the same time, which contained graphics depicting the location of tubercular lesions, were kept separate from the case histories but were organized by patient name and filed along with the post-1904 patient case files. These early files record the patient’s medical history and treatment plans but, unlike the later forms, contain a section for “Probable source and nature of the infection,” which sought to identify where the infection had been contracted.
In 1904, major recordkeeping changes were ushered in with the introduction of new standardized forms, now largely typewritten. Each patient started with a history sheet that listed family medical history, prior illnesses, and then details on health at the time of admission. This form was then followed up with a progress sheet, which recorded periodic notes on the patient’s condition and activities. In some cases, there are only a few perfunctory entries, while in others there are multiple pages of monthly updates. Typically written in a dry, clinical style, these updates do occasionally note nonmedical events, such as in 1905 when Pvt. Jacob Coatney’s progress sheet noted him as having spent two weeks in an isolation ward “by reason of misconduct.” Other forms include charts that graph temperature, weight, and pulse; diagrams of the body in which the doctor can shade in areas of lesions; and treatment forms showing the medicine and foods given to the patient. These forms were all consolidated into case files that are organized alphabetically, so knowing the dates of treatment is not needed when attempting to find an individual’s file.
The hospital’s correspondence files encompass a variety of topics, many which discuss specific individuals and their activities. The letters include information about service members’ leave, discharges, and retirements; families requesting information on patients; hospital administrative issues; and inquiries from politicians, academics, and the general public. Unlike most correspondence the Archives holds from other federal agencies or institutions, this collection is exhaustively indexed by name and subject, which lends itself to quick reference when researching an individual or topic.
Before World War I, Army installations were required to submit returns detailing post strength to the U.S. Army Adjutant General, and copies of those were saved by the hospital. These post returns were filled out monthly and typically focus on the personnel strength of the installation, though columns for such topics as general orders issued and events at the post do appear, depending on the year.
In general, each return will have a statistical section of the overall post strength and changes from the last report. Officers assigned to the hospital are individually listed, as are officers who are patients. Enlisted personnel, either patients or those attached to the hospital, are mentioned only when they arrive or depart, noted under columns as “gain” or “loss.”
For a better snapshot of the enlisted population, one should turn to the U.S. Army Hospital Corps Detachment Returns that were also submitted monthly. These forms detail the enlisted hospital staff, listing them individually by rank and noting their responsibilities and, curiously, their marital status. For example, on the January 1910 return, the first soldier listed is Sgt. 1st Class Martin Simmel, in charge of cold storage and a widower with one child.
All of these returns, whether they are post or detachment returns, are organized chronologically by date; so knowing when a particular person was serving at or admitted to the hospital as a patient is key.
Rounding out the hospital records are a few boxes of circulars, memoranda, and orders that are of a more limited value when researching individuals. Circulars and memoranda contain announcements germane to the hospital and staff. One memorandum lists the names of those acting as pallbearers for a patient’s funeral. General orders, organized by date and thereunder by order number, generally concerned administrative issues, such as 1909’s General Order 18 that forbade the riding of horses at “faster than a slow trot.” Special orders more often concerned personnel, regarding such things as leave and pay issues for soldiers, but there is no index, and they are organized only by date and order number.
All of these records, including the patient case files, are fully open to researchers. In order to preserve an individual’s privacy, records at the National Archives with personally identifiable information such as that found within health or student records are closed until the records are 75 years or older. For this collection, that restriction has long expired. While there is no online index, a researcher should first contact the National Archives at Denver to begin his or her research into a possible Fort Bayard hospital patient or staff member.
Case No. 1705: Pershing, Ward B.
To highlight some of the record types and the sort of information you might expect to find in a patient’s case file, let’s go back to Captain Pershing and his time at the hospital.
The post return from May 1905 as well as the treatment forms found in his case file all note that Pershing was admitted to the hospital on May 2 (his history form erroneously states he was admitted May 17), and he arrived with a general condition of “fairly good.” The disease had spread across both lungs, with lesions appearing on the upper right lung lobe and left lung apex, the very top of his upper left lung lobe. Pershing still had a cough along with moist rales, a rattling in the lung, noted on both sides of his chest. His appetite and digestion were good, but efforts were still made to get his weight up. The treatment record notes that he was given “Egg nogg” on May 13. Dr. C. Sigmund Raue, in the 1906 edition of his book Diseases of Children: A Text-Book for the Uses of Students and Practitioners of Medicine, stresses the importance when treating tuberculosis of “liquids or semi-solid food with the highest nutritive value” and included in his short list “eggnog” or “broths into which a raw egg has been stirred.”
The diet worked, and Pershing steadily gained weight, but his lungs failed to improve. In July the lesion in the right upper lobe was still classified as active and had spread to the summit of right lower lobe. An entry from October is short, remarking his lesion was “somewhat less active” and “general condition is better.”
Pershing’s stay at the hospital proper ended here. On November 4, 1905, he took leave and entered The Oakes Home, a sanitarium campus in Denver, Colorado. According to correspondence sent from Pershing to the Army, he extended his leave in April 1906, and two months later he wrote to the hospital, noting a change of address from the Oakes Home to Lyons, Colorado.
In September Pershing requested yet another leave extension and submitted a letter from his current physician as evidence. On September 6, Dr. S. G. Bonney wrote the Army, “I am convinced it would be very disastrous for him to attempt to return to duty at present, but I do look for a restoration of his activity and usefulness if he can remain a little longer under suitable conditions of life and climate.” His request was approved, and the record goes silent until the following year, where the final remark on Captain Pershing in our holdings is a pencil notation on his progress sheet; “left May 14 ’07.”
Ward never survived to see his older brother reach the apex of the U.S. Army hierarchy. He retired from the U.S. Army on June 1, 1907, and remained in Colorado, in and out of sanitariums. In June 1908 he was well enough to marry Gertrude Haines, but a little over a year later, on August 28, 1909, Ward Pershing died in Denver. He was 35 years old. His story, however, lives on in part within the National Archives at Denver.
- Ward B. Pershing History Sheet; Box 54; Medical Case Files, 1900–1912 (NRG-112-04-031); U.S. Army General Hospital, Fort Bayard; Records of the Office of the Surgeon General, Record Group (RG) 112; National Archives at Denver (NAD).
- S. G. Bonney, MD, to Military Secretary United States Army, Sept. 25, 1906; p. 1; Box 1; Document File, 1906–1912 (NRG-112-04-033); RG 112; NAD.
- Carol R. Byerly, Good Tuberculosis Men: The Army Medical Department’s Struggle with Tuberculosis (Fort Sam Houston, TX: U.S. Army Office of the Surgeon General Borden Institute, 2013), p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 4.
- Byerly, Good Tuberculosis Men, p. 7.
- Ibid., p. 19.
- Acting Surgeon General to Commanding Officer, June 1, 1907; Box 6; Document File, 1906–1912 (NRG-112-04-033); RG 112; NAD.
- A. J. McFarland Clinical History; p. 3; Box 43; Medical Case Files, 1900–1912 (NRG-112-04-031); RG 112; NAD.
- Jacob C.W. Coatney Progress Sheet; p. 3; Box 13; Medical Case Files, 1900–1912 (NRG-112-04-031); RG 112; NAD.
- Return of the Detachment of the Hospital Corps, U.S.A, the Field Equipment and Means of Transportation at U.S.A General Hospital, Fort Bayard from the 1st to the 31st day of January 1910; p. 1; Box 2; Returns of Hospital Corps, 1903–1912 (NRG-112-04-029); RG 112; NAD.
- General Orders, No. 18, Apr. 6, 1909; Box 2; General Orders, Special Orders, Circulars, 1902–1912 (NRG-112-04-037); RG 112; NAD.
- Ward B. Pershing History Sheet, RG 112, NAD.
- Ward B. Pershing Treatment and Remarks; Box 54; Medical Case Files, 1900–1912 (NRG-112-04-031); RG 112; NAD.
- Dr. C. Sigmund, Diseases of Children: A Text-Book for the Uses of Students and Practitioners of Medicine (Philadelphia: Boericke & Tafel, 1906), p. 302.
- Ward B. Pershing Progress Sheet; Box 54; Medical Case Files, 1900–1912 (NRG-112-04-031); RG 112; NAD.
- S. G. Bonney MD to Military Secretary United States Army, Sept. 25, 1906; p. 1; RG 112; NAD.
- Ward B. Pershing to Adjutant, June 24, 1906; Box 6; Letters Received, 1900–1906 (NRG-112-04-032); RG 112; NAD.
- S. G. Bonney, MD, to Military Secretary United States Army, Sept. 25, 1906; p. 3; RG 112; NAD.
- Ward B. Pershing Progress Sheet; RG 112; NAD.
- John J. Pershing with John T. Greenwood, My Life Before the World War, 1860–1917; A Memoir (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), p. 570.
Originally published by Prologue 49:2 (Summer 2017), the United States National Archives and Records Administration, to the public domain.