Share This

The Father of Battlefield Medicine

Class of 1849 Graduate Jonathan Letterman, MD, Is Celebrated for His Medical Innovations During the Civil War

Old portrait of Letterman in his army uniform

Jonathan Letterman, MD, lies beneath a gravestone that reads: “Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac … who brought order and efficiency into the Medical Service and who was the originator of modern methods of medical organization in armies.”

Letterman, an 1849 graduate of Jefferson Medical College (now Sidney Kimmel Medical College), is known as the “father of battlefield medicine” for creating the procedures for efficient medical management of wartime casualties. Today, his system remains the basis for much of battlefield, emergency, and disaster medicine around the world.

On October 25–26, 2019, during the SKMC Alumni Weekend, Letterman’s life and accomplishments will be celebrated as he is named the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award. The award was established in 2017 to honor alumni posthumously for a lifetime of achievement, for contributions to their profession or field, and for service to the community and to humanity at large.

“Jonathan Letterman changed the course of the Civil War—and American medicine. He is the epitome of a Jeffersonian, using outstanding clinical skills and an innovative mind to improve the fate of soldiers then and now, and to propel battlefield and disaster medicine into the modern era,” says M. Dean Kinsey, MD ‘69, chair of the Alumni Awards Committee, SKMC Alumni Board. “We are so proud to celebrate his life, his accomplishments, and his contributions to humanity.”

Letterman was born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1824, the son of a prominent surgeon. Upon graduating from Jefferson Medical College in 1849, he assumed the position of assistant surgeon in the Army Medical Department.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Letterman was assigned to the Army of the Potomac. A year later he was promoted to the rank of major and named medical director of the Army.

Dismayed that it took more than a week to remove the wounded from the battlefield at Battle of Second Manassas, Letterman was given permission by General George McClellan to overhaul the process of providing medical services to the wounded. Instead of leaving the injured to fend for themselves in the field, Letterman instituted what would become the first ambulance corps, training men to act as stretcher-bearers and operate wagons to pick up the wounded and bring them to field medical stations.

Letterman also invented the triage for treatment of casualties, and developed a medical response system that consisted of field stations located on or next to the battlefield where medical personnel would tend to initial wounds; moveable field hospitals, usually in nearby homes or barns, where emergency surgery could be performed; and a base hospital located away from the battlefield, providing facilities for the long-term treatment of patients.

In March of 1864, Letterman’s system was officially adopted for the U.S. Army by an act of Congress.

Letterman resigned from the Army in December 1864, moved to San Francisco where he served as coroner from 1867 to 1872, and published his memoirs, Medical Recollections of the Army of the Potomac. He died in 1872 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

On November 13, 1911, the Army hospital at the Presidio in San Francisco was named Letterman Army Hospital in his honor.

Old photograph of soldiers standing in front of tents. Jonathan Letterman, MD, standing between President Abraham Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan after the Battle of Antietam. McClellan was son of George McClellan, who founded Jefferson.