Sunday, June 3, 2018

Army Doctor M. W. Wood and Spotted Fever Research [otd 06/03]

Marshall Wood. U. S. Army archives.
Lieutenant Colonel Marshall William Wood, Army Medical Corps, was born June 3, 1846, in Watertown, New York, about sixty miles north of Syracuse. He enlisted as an Army Private in late 1864 and was twice wounded in Civil War action.

After his discharge in the summer of 1865, Wood found a position as a medical assistant at a retired solders home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There, he began his medical studies in a physician’s office.

In 1870, he re-enlisted in the Army, this time as a “Hospital Steward” in the medical department. His duty assignment took him to Chicago, where he could take classes at Rush Medical School. In 1875, he became an Assistant Surgeon in the Army Medical Corps, with the rank of 1st Lieutenant.

Over the next twenty years or so, Dr. Wood served at stations all over the United States. At one point, he spent eight straight years at Western posts and came under fire at least two times in the Indian wars. In 1889, Wood also published a Dictionary of Volapük. Volapük was (is) an artificial language similar to Esparanto. It enjoyed considerable popularity from about 1880 to 1900.

By the time Wood moved to Boise Barracks, he had been promoted to the rank of Major. Major Wood took over as Post Surgeon in late 1894. In 1896, one of his monthly reports referred to a malady, “spotted fever,” that seemed to be common in the Boise Valley.

The Surgeon General asked for more information. Wood consulted with several Boise City physicians, including George Collister [blog, Oct 16], Warren Springer [blog, Mar 30], and several others. Wood’s report to the Surgeon General, Spotted Fever as Reported from Idaho, is generally recognized as the first systematic description of disease symptoms, treatment methods, likely causes, and so on. (Wood carefully credited the doctors who contributed to his report.)
Post Surgeon’s quarters, Fort Boise. U. S. Army archives.

Major Wood served in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. At the attack on Santiago, he commanded the only divisional hospital that made it to the front. A Medical Corps history noted the danger of their position and that enemy rifle fire had “killed a contract surgeon during the battle of San Juan Hill.” Wood received three commendations for Distinguished Service during this campaign.

Wood retired for the first time in 1904. He said he moved back to Boise because "it has the most favorable climate of any city I know." In Boise, Wood invested in mining ventures and operated a ranch not far from the city. He was also active in the Masons and the Grand Army of the Republic (G. A. R.), the society of Union Civil War veterans.

Wood volunteered for active duty and served during the 1916 Mexican border incident [blog, June 18], and then for World War I. Over 70 years old, Wood handled the examination of younger physicians slated for field duty with the Army.

After his final retirement in 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Wood returned to Boise. There, he interested again himself in the affairs of various patriotic organizations. Thus, a couple years later, he was elected national Surgeon General of the G. A. R.

In 1927, when he was over 80 years old, Wood represented Idaho at an American Legion convention held in Paris, France. He was then believed to be the only living Legion member who had seen active duty in the Civil War, Spanish-American War, Mexican intervention of 1916-1917, and the (first) World War.

Dr. Wood passed away in August 1933.
References: [French]
Mary C. Gillett, The Army Medical Department: 1865-1917, U. S. Army Center of Military History, Washington D. C. (1995).
James F. Hammarsten, “The contributions of Idaho physicians to knowledge of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever,” Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association, Vol. 94 (1983) p. 27–43.
James H. Wickersham, Fourteenth Biennial Report of the Board of Trustees of the State Historical Society of Idaho, Boise (1934).
“[M. W. Wood News],” Idaho Statesman, Boise (Sept 29, 1904 – Sept 23, 1927).


  1. Fascinating. Wood probably worked on Volapuk rather than Esperanto because the latter had probably nopt reached the U.S.A. in 1889.

  2. The Wood biography that mentions Volapük noted that it "preceded Esparanto by eight years." The bio also claimed that Wood's dictionary was "the standard work in the United States" on the language.
    Wood spent a long time on duty in the American West, where he would have encountered many Indian tribes with mutually-unintelligible languages. Perhaps he saw Volapük as a better common language for them. English can be difficult for non-native speakers to learn ... and it was, after all, the language of "the enemy." (It's always fun to speculate about history.)