Merritte Weber Ireland – Major General, United States Army

Courtesy of the United States Army

MERRITTE WEBER IRELAND (May 31, 1867-July 5, 1952), The Surgeon General, October 4, 1918 – May 31, 1931, was born on May 31, 1867, at Columbia City, a town in the upper end of the Wabash valley in Whitley County, Indiana.  His father, Dr. Martin Ireland, was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, and graduated in medicine in Cincinnati in 1849, settling in Columbia City in 1855.  The Ireland family originated in the west of Scotland, coming to Ohio by way of Maryland.  His mother, whose maiden name was Sarah Fellers, came from Waynesboro, Virginia.

After finishing the high school course in his native town, he entered the Detroit College of Medicine where after three years (1887-1890) he received an M.D. degree in the latter year.  The following year was spent in Jefferson Medical College where again he was given an M.D. degree in 1891.  He immediately took the examination for the medical service of the army and was commissioned an assistant surgeon from Indiana on May 4, 1891.

His first assignment took him to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, where he served from May to September of 1891.  At the end of that time he was transferred to Fort Riley, Kansas, to serve under Major John Van R. Hoff and to have direct charge of the first company of instruction of the Hospital Corps organized by Captain Hoff.  This early contact with one of the most forceful characters the medical department has produced was bound to have a lasting influence.  The friendship of the two remained a close one until Colonel Hoff's death.  During this tour at Fort Riley he had terms of temporary duty at Fort Yates, North Dakota, in 1892 and at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893.  He was transferred to duty at Fort Apache, Arizona, in April 1893 and remained there until November of the following year. While at this post he returned to Columbia City, his old home,  and was married on November 8, 1893, to Elizabeth Liggett of that place.

In November 1894 he went for duty to Fort Stanton, New Mexico, where he served until January 1896.  His service at Fort Apache and Fort Stanton was featured by much field service incident to Indian depredations and to exploring expeditions. From Fort Stanton he was transferred to Benicia Barracks, California, in January 1896.  While stationed at that post he spent the summers of 1896-1897 in the Yosemite National Park with troops.  In January 1898 be was ordered to the Presidio of San Francisco, where the outbreak of the Spanish-American War found him. In April 1898 he accompanied units of the 3d Field Artillery to Chickamauga Park, Georgia, and from there to Port Tampa, Florida. In June he went to Cuba on the transport Saratoga landing at Siboney, where he was as signed to the Reserve Divisional Hospital under command of Major Louis A. La Garde.  Accompanying General Shafter's army he returned to the United States in August, landing at Montauk Point, Long Island, New York, where he was assigned as executive officer of the general hospital at Camp Wickoff.

In November he was sent to Fort Wayne, Michigan, as post surgeon.  His stay there was short for in the following summer he was assigned to the position of major and surgeon, 45th Volunteer Infantry, and went with that  organization to the Philippines. From December 1899 to April 1900 he saw constant field service with his regiment, participating in a dozen engagements in the provinces of Cavite, Camarines, and Albay in southern Luzon.  In April he was detached from his regiment and placed in charge of the medical supply depot in Manila.  For nearly two years he performed the duty of medical purveyor of the Division of the Philippines with additional duties as disbursing officer of the Public Civil Fund.  For the highly efficient performance of these duties he received the commendation of the Philippine high command.  He held rank as a major of volunteers from August 17, 1899, to June 30, 1901.  In the  meantime he had been promoted to the grade of captain in the regular establishment on May 4, 1896, and was advanced to the grade of major on August 3, 1903.

He returned to the United States on the transport Grant in March 1902, and was assigned as attending surgeon in St. Louis, Missouri.  In October of that year he was brought to the office of The Surgeon General in Washington by General O'Reilly who had recently taken over that office. He was given charge of the Hospital Corps division of the office, the name later changed to personnel division.  For nearly ten years thereafter, through the administrations of Generals O'Reilly and Torney, Major Ireland served the central office in various capacities.  At different times he was executive officer and in charge of the supply division, reverting again in his later years in the office to the post of head of the personnel division.  This service, from 1902 to 1912, gave him a remarkable knowledge of the personnel of the corps, a knowledge which was of the greatest value to him in his later career.  As personnel officer lie had put in to effect a foreign service roster, the operation of which had brought him to the top of the list in 1912, when he went again to the Philippine Islands, serving from September 1912 to June 1915 as surgeon of the brigade post of Fort McKinley, near Manila.

He returned to the United States in August 1915 and was assigned to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, first as sanitary inspector of the Southern Department and surgeon of the Cavalry Division, later as surgeon of the post.  His tour of duty here coincided with the assembly of large bodies of National Guard troops along the Rio Grande and with the Punitive Expedition into Mexico led by General Pershing.  Fort Sam Houston was the hospital center for these operations, with a situation beset with difficulties for the surgeon, but Ireland, a lieutenant colonel since May 1, 1911, only added to his reputation for able administration.  He was holding this position when a state of war was declared with Germany on April 6, 1917.  In assembling his staff for the high command in France, General Pershing chose Ireland for the post of chief surgeon, but The Surgeon General selected for the place Colonel Alfred E. Bradley.

Ireland sailed with General Pershing for France as first assistant to Colonel Bradley and served in that capacity until the latter was compelled on account of ill health to give up this office in April 1918, when Ireland became chief surgeon.  As assistant and head of the service in the American Expeditionary Force his administrative and professional abilities won the highest commendation of General Pershing.  This is no place to go into any detail regarding the medical service in the A. E. F. and nothing of the sort will be attempted.  Ireland was promoted to colonel in the medical corps on May 15, 1917, to temporary rank of brigadier general on May 16, 1918, and to major general assistant Surgeon General, A. E. F., on August 8, 1918.

With the approaching retirement of General Gorgas in October 1918 there was much interest and concern in regard to his successor.  The conduct of General Gorgas' office by Colonel Robert E. Noble (at this time a temporary major general) had made him a formidable candidate and there was considerable mention of men from the civilian profession for the place.  In the A. E. F., in the summer of 1918, a group of high ranking men of the corps, several senior to General Ireland, put in a request to General Pershing that he should recommend Ireland for appointment as Surgeon General.  This coincided with General Pershing's own view and he made the recommendation as requested. Whether or not this was the deciding factor, General Ireland was appointed Surgeon General with the grade of major general on October 4, 1918.  The choice of General Ireland by this group of men of the A. E. F., any one of whom might with good reason have been himself a candidate,  vas a tribute of the highest order, and the corps as a whole has reason to be proud of this group in its unselfish abnegation.

General Ireland arrived in New York on October 28 and took the oath of office October 30, the office in the meantime functioning under Brigadier General Charles Richard.  After the Armistice November 11, 1918, he found the office confronted with the problems incident to demobilization and reorganization.  To the medical service fell not only the duty of the physical examination of all personnel prior to discharge and the evaluation of their disabilities; but there were still thousands of sick and wounded to be healed and reconstructed.

With the gradual reduction of the case load there was necessary a coincident reduction of medical department facilities; but the years following the close of the war were still busy ones for the army general hospitals. Much of the energy of General Ireland's early years in office was employed in replacing with permanent construction the temporary hospital structures erected during the war.  The Walter Reed and Letterman General Hospitals were thus rebuilt and completed.  The William Beaumont General Hospital at El Paso, Texas, was built and put into operation July 1, 1921.  The development of he Army Medical Center was another notable achievement of this period.

In addition to the construction of new pavilions for the hospital and the improvement of the grounds there were added the fine building which houses the Army Medical, Dental, and Veterinary Schools, and a new Red Cross building.  The medical department schools housed in the new building were greatly developed with largely full-time instructors.  The Army School of Nursing was continued in connection with the Walter Reed General Hospital.  A further development was the creation on May 15, 1920, of the Medical Field Service School at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., a school for officers and enlisted men where they are instructed in medico-military matters, administration, tactics, field sanitation, work with field units, map-making, equitation, motor mechanism, and kindred topics.  The third tropical disease board was established in Manila in the spring of 1922.

The disposal of the large stocks of surplus medical supplies on hand at the close of the war was one of the major problems of the supply division of the office.  Altogether General Ireland's term of office was marked by notable progress along the whole line of medical department activity. He had the confidence of the General Staff and of the military committees of the Senate and House and was given by them a degree of consideration accorded to but few of the occupants of The Surgeon General's office.  He was reappointed on October 30, 1922, and again on October 30, 1926, and October 30, 1930, and was retired on May 31, 1931, by reason of reaching the statutory age.

One can do no better in listing the qualities of General Ireland than to quote the words of the commanding general of the A.E.F. who saw in him the outstanding figure in the medical corps of that time:  “He is abounding in vitality, mental and physical, quick and accurate in decision, and prompt in action once the decision is made.  He understands men and knows how to work with them for the common end.  He has a thorough knowledge of the organization of the army and the medical department's place in it. He is far-sighted in making plans, and unusually able in administration.  He is loyal always, but courageous in promoting sound views and avoiding error. He has an attractive personality and a diplomatic turn of mind, through which he has been able, among other things, to promote, in the War Department and in Congress, the goal of his ambition, which is to make his department more useful not only to the army but to the profession in general.”

To the writer, an outstanding trait of General Ireland is his instant grasp of any proposition brought to his attention, his recognition of its merits and its defects and the promptness with which he can weigh these, one against the other, and arrive at a decision convincing to the author of the scheme.  He has the gift of a highly retentive memory of personnel, not only of names and faces but of incidents connected with previous meetings.  This happy faculty has been not only an aid in the success of his administration but has had much to do with his great personal popularity.

General Ireland has been the recipient of a flood of honors, from his own and from foreign governments, from learned societies, and from institutions of learning.  He was given the American Distinguished Service Medal, and was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor of France, a Companion of the Order of the Bath of Great Britain, and a Grand Officer of the Order of Polonia Restituta.  He is a fellow and one time president of the American College of Surgeons, fellow of the American College of Physicians, and of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.  He has been president of the National Board of Medical Examiners and a member of the Council of Medical Education and Hospitals of the American Medical Association.  He has been a director of Garfield Hospital, of Columbia Hospital, and of the United States Soldiers' Home, all in Washington.  A long-time member of the Association of Military Surgeons, he was its president in 1925-27.

General Ireland's contributions to periodic literature have been largely in the form of addresses which it fell to his duty to make upon all sorts of occasions.  The great literary event of his administration was the production of the History of the Medical Department of the U. S. Army in the World War, begun with Colonel Charles Lynch as editor and finished under the editorship of Colonel Frank W. Weed.

Since retirement General Ireland has lived in Washington, continuing active participation in the civic affairs of the community. He has also kept up much of his former activities in the administration of local hospitals and in the affairs of various medical societies. He has received offers of places of honor and profit but has preferred to remain in position to come and go and do as he wishes.  Much of the time of General and Mrs. Ireland is taken up by more or less prolonged trips away from Washington, to Florida in the winter and to Colorado in the summer, where at Pueblo lives their only son, Dr. Paul Mills Ireland, born in 1895, and a graduate of the University of Michigan in the class of 1920.  [Dr. Ireland was later Chief Surgeon of the Veterans' Administration Hospital in Denver, Colorado.

Editor's Note:

After his retirement, Major General  Ireland continued to serve as president of the Army Mutual Aid Association until 1947 when deteriorating health forced him to resign after 18 years as president and 32 years as a director.  He was recipient of a number of honorary degrees–from Jefferson Medical College (1919), University of Michigan (1920), Gettysburg College (1922), Syracuse University (1935), Wayne University, and the International Y. M. C. A. College.  Among the number honors he received were the William Freeman Snow Award for Distinguished Service to Humanity from the American Social Hygiene Association in 1945 for his reorganization of the Army Medical Department and the citation for distinguished service to humanity from the Medical Society of the District of Columbia in April 1945.   On February 23, 1939, he delivered the William Potter Memorial Lecture at Jefferson Medical College, speaking on the subject “Medicine's Debt to the United States Army.”

General Ireland remain actively involved with the Army Medical Department after his retirement as an advisor to his successors as Surgeon General and to the leadership of the War Department.  This was especially so after George C. Marshall became Chief of Staff on September 1, 1939.  Both Ireland, as Chief  Surgeon of the Punitive Expedition into Mexico in 1916-17 and of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France in World War I, and Marshall were closely associated with General John J. Pershing during and after World War I and knew each other well.  Marshall often called on Ireland to advise him on matters pertaining to the Army Medical Department and military medicine.  He played a significant roles during the searching examination of the AMEDD and of the relations between the Services of Supply and the Office of The Surgeon General in 1942-43 by the Wadhams Committee and in the selection of  Brigadier General  Norman Kirk to succeed Major General James Magee as The Surgeon General in 1943.  Especially during the latter years of MG Magee's tenure as The Surgeon General, Ireland came to play a larger unofficial role because of the steadily worsening personal and official relations between Marshall and Magee.

During his later years, General Ireland was beset with serious physical ailments which severely limited his activities.  First painful conditions in his knee joints limited him.  Then, after several cerebral hemorrhages, he passed his last years as a complete invalid and bed-ridden at Walter Reed Army Hospital.  He died at Walter Reed on July 5, 1952 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on July 9th following funeral services in the Memorial Chapel at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

In his obituary note on MG Ireland in the Annals of Internal Medicine (1952), MG George A. Armstrong, then The Surgeon General, wrote: “General Ireland was largely responsible for the development of modern concepts of field medicine during World War I and his accomplishments made possible many of the later medical achievements of World War II and Korea. . . . Both in his position as Chief Surgeon of the American Expeditionary Forces in France and, later, as Surgeon General of the Army for many years, General Ireland proved himself one of the great leaders of the Army Medical Service, and an unequaled administrator in the field of military medicine.  His example while on active duty and his wise counsel following retirement were a source of constant inspiration to those who succeeded him as Surgeons General of the Army.”

DATE OF BIRTH: 08/24/1867
DATE OF DEATH: 07/28/1961

DATE OF BIRTH: 05/31/1867
DATE OF DEATH: 07/05/1952


Portrait Courtesy of the United States Army



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