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Bernard John Dowling Irwin

Brigadier General, Medical Corps, U. S. Army

Bernard John Dowling Irwin (June 24, 1830-Dec. 15, 1917), Brigadier General, Medical Corps, U. S. Army, was born in County Roscommon in the west of Ireland. His parents, James and Sabina Marie (Dowling) Irwin, immigrated to the United States during the great exodus of the fourth decade of the last century and settled in New York City. Young Irwin was given a liberal education by private tutors, including the classical and modern languages, later attending New York University in 1848-49. With an early bent for a military life he enlisted as a private in the 7th Regiment of the New York National Guard, serving three years (1848-51). In 1850 he entered the Castleton Medical College at Castleton, Vermont, but later transferred to the New York Medical College where he graduated in 1852. Following graduation he went to the State Emigrant Hospital on Ward’s Island where he served as house surgeon and house physician until 1855. In that year he was appointed an acting assistant surgeon in the army and sent to Fort Columbus at Corpus Christi, Texas. On August 28, 1856, he was appointed to the regular corps as an assistant surgeon and sent to Fort Union, N. M., later transferring to Fort Defiance, Arizona. From these posts he was in the field much of the time in operations against hostile Navajos and Apaches. In December 1857 he was sent to Fort Buchanan, Arizona, where he served for the following four years. From this post in January 1861 he led a detachment of the 7th Infantry to the aid of Lieutenant George Bascom, who, with sixty men, was surrounded at Apache Pass by five hundred Indians under the Chief Cohise. On the way they met and defeated an Indian band and joined the beleaguered force with three prisoners and a drove of captured horses and cattle. Arrival of a troop of the 1st Dragoons shortly thereafter permitted the dispersal of the Indians. For this duty Lieutenant Irwin was given a Congressional Medal of Honor. At the outbreak of the Civil War he was still at Fort Buchanan, which was destroyed by its evacuating garrison. Irwin shared the hardships and misfortunes of the 7th Infantry until it arrived at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, in November 1861. He had been promoted to captain on August 28, 1861. Early in the next year he was appointed medical director of General Jeremiah T. Boyle’s brigade and then medical director of General William Nelson’s division in the Army of the Ohio. In this capacity he took part in the campaign which culminated in the battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862. At this battle he organized a tent field hospital, credited with being the first of the kind and the model upon which our later field hospitals were based. For his service in this battle he was given special commendation by the army commander. A tablet upon the Shiloh field, erected by the Government, marks the site of his hospital. He later participated in the siege of Corinth, Mississippi. Transferred to the Army of Kentucky in August 1862 he took part in the battle of Richmond, Kentucky, and was captured while attempting the rescue of General Nelson, his division commander, who had been previously captured. His conduct in this battle was the subject of commendatory remarks. He was promoted to the grade of major on September 16, 1862, and in October, having been given his liberty, he was appointed medical director of the Army of the Southwest. In this capacity he took part in the White River expedition which resulted in the capture, in January 1863, of Fort Hindman, on the Arkansas river. In February 1863 he was sent to St. Louis, Missouri, for hospital duty and in March to Memphis, Tennessee, as superintendent of the general hospital in that city. He was on this duty until July 1865 when he was transferred to the military headquarters at. Louisville, Ky. On March 13, 1865, he was given brevets of lieutenant colonel and colonel “for faithful and meritorious service during the war.”

Following the close of the war Major Irwin was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, as post surgeon. He served repeatedly at this post, at Fort Leavenworth, and at Fort Wayne, until his assignment in October 1873 to the United States Military Academy at West Point. After five years of this duty he spent a year from September 1878 to September 1879 in Europe in study and travel. In October 1879 he was assigned to Fort Meade, Dakota, and in June of the following year to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, where for three months he was in charge of the office of the medical director, Department of Dakota. In August he was transferred to Chicago and given the post of attending surgeon at the headquarters of the Department of the Missouri. In October 1882 he was transferred to the post of medical director of the Department of Arizona at Prescott and in 1885 to New York in charge of the medical purveying depot. In 1886 he was transferred to similar duty in San Francisco where he served the next four years. He was promoted to the grade of lieutenant colonel on September 28, 1885, and to colonel on August 20, 1890. Later duty included a tour as medical director of the Department of Columbia at Vancouver Barracks (1890-91) and his last active service was three years as medical director of the Department of the Missouri at Chicago. In 1893 he was a delegate and vice-president of the Pan-American Medical Congress which met in Chicago and in 1894 he was a delegate to the International Medical Congress at Rome. At the time of his retirement for age on June 28, 1894, he was the second ranking officer in the corps.

Following his retirement Colonel Irwin took up a residence in Chicago where for the rest of his life he took a prominent part in the social and civic activities of the city. In accordance with an act of Congress of April 23, 1904, covering such cases (33 Stat. 264), he was promoted to the grade of brigadier general for service in the Civil War. He was particularly active in the affairs of military societies, holding membership in the Loyal Legion, the Society of the Army of Cumberland, the Society of the Army of the Tennessee, the Military Service Institution, and the Order of Indian Wars, of which latter he was commander from 1903 to 1906. He was present at the meeting on September 17, 1891, at the Leland Hotel in Chicago which resulted in the organization of the Association of Military Surgeons and with three other members of the corps was given honorary membership in the society, which at its beginning was for National Guard officers only. He gave the first address before this meeting, a narrative of his personal experiences as a medical officer. He was active in the negotiations by which the scope of the society was changed at the Chicago meeting of 1893 to include in its membership officers of the regular corps and he was elected vice-president. The following year at Washington he read a paper before the society entitled Notes on the introduction of tent field hospitals in war. He was a member and vice-president (1904-06) of the American White Cross Society.

Despite the title of “the fighting doctor” frequently bestowed upon General Irwin he was always interested primarily in his professional work. Even in the reckless dash from Fort Buchanan in 1861 his first consideration was the need of his professional skill by his besieged comrades. His resolute character is further shown on this occasion by his insistence upon the execution of six Apache prisoners in reprisal for the murder by the tribe of six civilian postal employees. In those early years of his army experience he gave no thought to distance, danger, or hardship in answering the many calls for his help. He was admirably fitted physically for this kind of work. He was at this time a tall man of spare but powerful frame, blue-eyed, with light sandy hair. Throughout life he was sociable and companionable, possessed of many lasting friendships. That he was as forthright in his dislikes is shown by the letter he addressed to a Congressional committee in 1890, protesting against an appointment given a fellow officer. He wrote numerous articles on military and medical subjects for the journal literature, showing a scholarly mind and an excellent command of language. A surgical case report in the American Journal of Medical Sciences of October 1859 would be creditable to any modern medical writer.

While stationed in Memphis during the Civil War he was married on June 20, 1864, to Antoinette Elizabeth Stahl. A son, George LeRoy Irwin, graduated from West Point, served with distinction in the World War, and attained the grade of major general. Of two daughters, one married Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and the other, Dr Arthur A. Small of Chicago. Mrs. Irwin died in February 1912. General Irwin died on December 15, 1917, at his summer home at Cobourg, Ontario, and was buried in the post cemetery at West Point. Mrs. McCormick presented a painting of her father to the Army Medical Library where it hangs in Library Hall.

(Who’s Who in America 1912-13. Records of Living Officers, U. S. Army, L.H. Hamersley. J. A. M. A., December 22, 1917. Military Surgeon, March 1928, and October 1933. Chicago Tribune, December 16, 1917, Southwestern Medicine, Phoenix, 1935.)

James M. Phalen,

Colonel, U. S. Army, Retired.