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Photo Robert Murray

Surgeons General

ROBERT MURRAY (August 6, 1823 - January 1, 1913), Surgeon General, November 23, 1883 - August 6, 1886, was born at Elkridge, Maryland, then in Anne Arundel County. He was the son of Daniel and Mary (Dorsey) Murray, of Scotch descent. He was educated in the local schools of his community and attended the University of Maryland. His medical training was obtained at the University of Pennsylvania where he graduated in 1843. Following a year in Baltimore hospitals be took the examination for the army medical service, was appointed an acting assistant surgeon early in 1846, and was commissioned an assistant surgeon on June 29 of the same year. After a short service at Fort Gratiot, Mich., be was ordered to duty on the Pacific coast, which he reached after months of sea voyaging around the Horn. For four years he served in California at Los Angeles, Monterey, and Camp Far West. In October 1850 he returned east to Fort Independence in Boston harbor where be spent two years, followed by two years in New York City. Returning to California in April 1854 he remained there until the outbreak of the Civil War, when, in June 1861, be was ordered to Washington, D. C., where he participated in the organization of the early hospitals in Washington and Alexandria. While on this duty he was married to Adelaide Atwood of Gardiner, Maine. In the meantime lie bad been promoted to captain on June 29, 1851, and to major and surgeon on June 23, 1860. In September 1861 he was ordered to Kentucky to the Army of the Ohio, then under organization. Though appointed medical director of the department he took the field with the headquarters of the army, now the Army of the Cumberland, serving successively with Generals Anderson, Sherman, Buell, and Rosecrans. He arrived with Buell's army on the field of Shiloh on the second day of the battle and, as he was the ranking medical officer in the combined armies, he became the medical director of the entire force, aggregating fifty thousand men. He continued as medical director of the Army of the Cumberland until December 1862, when he was ordered to duty in Philadelphia as medical purveyor where he remained until the close of the war.

The depot which he commanded here was the principal purchasing agency in the country for medical supplies. In this duty which involved the expenditure of millions of dollars he showed executive ability of a high order. On the 13th of March 1865 he was given the brevets of lieutenant colonel and colonel for meritorious service during the war, and on July 28, 1866, with the reorganization of the army, he was appointed an assistant medical purveyor with the grade of lieutenant colonel. In July 1866, he was again ordered to the Pacific coast as medical purveyor at San Francisco, upon which duty he remained for the following eleven years. On June 26, 1876 he was promoted to the grade of colonel and the following year he was transferred to the post of medical director of the Division of the Missouri at Chicago. In 1880 he went to the Division of the Atlantic at New York as medical director.

As the ranking colonel of the medical department he automatically became the assistant Surgeon General on December 14, 1882, following the advancement of General Crane to the higher office. With the sudden death of the latter in 1883 there was the usual keen rivalry for the succession; but President Arthur solved the problem by deciding to advance the senior officer to the vacancy, and Murray became Surgeon General on November 23, 1883. The few years of his incumbency in that high office were comparatively uneventful ones. General Murray was of a naturally conservative disposition with his thoughts more directed toward the preservation and improvement of existing conditions than to the initiation of new movements. It may be said of his regime that it was a contented one and that the interests of the department did not suffer during his term of office. It was a time of scientific awakening in the corps, coincident to a similar phenomenon in the profession at large. General Murray's report of 1884 mentions for the first time in such reports the subject of antisepsis and antiseptic surgery. Operations were being performed under antiseptic technique in army hospitals as early as 1883, a time when Lister was still a subject of ridicule in London. Bacteriology and hygiene of modern type were exciting attention. In his report of 1885, Murray, in discussing the sanitation of posts, suggested the probability of water supplies as carriers of disease germs, and recommended the disposal of garbage by incineration. In this year he was instrumental in sending Major Sternberg to Rome as a delegate to the International Sanitary Conference.

General Murray was retired on account of age on August 6, 1886, after which he took up his residence in his ancestral home at Elkridge. With this as his headquarters he spent most of his later life in travel, spending years at a time in Europe. He died in Baltimore of pneumonia on New Year's day of 1913, at the age of ninety years. With his death there passed away the last of the prominent medical officers of the Civil War, the last who had held the title of medical director in that conflict. His death left but three officers on the retired list whose service dated back to the time of the Mexican War. Like his predecessor in office, General Murray was a primary member of the Aztec Club of 1847: Military Society of the Mexican War. He was its president from 1911 to 1912.

Sources:  J. E. Pilcher, Surgeon Generals of the Army (1905);  Kelly and Burrage, American Medical Biographies (1920);  Records of Living Officers of the U. S. Army (1884);  Alum. Reg. U. of Penn. (1912-13) Medical Annals of Maryland 1799-1899 (1903).

[Extracted from "Chiefs of the Medical Department, U.S. Army 1775-1940, Biographical Sketches,"  Army Medical Bulletin, No. 52, April 1940, pp. 55-57, compiled by James M. Phalen, Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S. Army retired]