Robert Comegys Laning – Rear Admiral, United States Navy

Robert Comegys Laning, a physician in the Navy Medical Corps who examined the first three American astronauts upon their splashdowns, died of pancreatic cancer April 28, 2008, at his home in McLean, Virginia. He was 85.


Admiral Laning was aboard Navy ships assigned to recover Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn after they returned from their flights. At the time, no one knew what effect suborbital or orbital flights would have on the human body, but Admiral Laning's post-flight physicals showed that the astronauts retained their health and conditioning.

He retired from the Navy in 1977 as a Rear Admiral, then joined the Veterans Administration, quickly becoming the director of surgery for the system. Just before he retired 10 years later, an internal audit found higher-than-usual mortality rates and preventable medical errors among the heart patients who died after cardiac surgery in the VA system. Admiral Laning ordered an investigation and closed numerous hospital heart surgery units across the country.

He was born in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, where his father, Richard H. Laning, a Navy surgeon, was assigned. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and received a medical degree in 1948 from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. He completed his residency training in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1957.

He served aboard multiple ships, including the destroyer tender USS Hamul, the destroyer USS Rupertus, the guided missile cruiser USS Antietam and the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid. His hospital duty assignments sent him to Annapolis, Philadelphia, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Chelsea, Massachuettts, and San Diego.

He was executive officer of the Great Lakes Naval Hospital near Chicago and commanding officer at the Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, Japan. While stationed there, he attended the 100th anniversary of the founding of St. Barnabas Hospital in Osaka, which his grandfather had established in 1873.

Admiral Laning became Pacific Fleet medical officer and Pacific command surgeon in the early 1970s, and supervised the medical placements for South Vietnamese evacuees. In 1975, he was transferred to the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Washington as the assistant chief of the Bureau for Operations Medical Support.

After his military retirement and his 1987 retirement from the VA, Admiral Laning enjoyed reading, gardening, painting landscapes and volunteering. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus at St. Luke's Catholic Church in McLean, a volunteer with Meals on Wheels and a board member of the Friends of John Paul II Foundation and the Polish American Congress.

Among his military awards was the Legion of Merit. He was a diplomate of the American Board of Surgery, fellow of the American College of Surgeons, where he served as governor for two years, and past president of the Society of Medical Consultants to the Armed Forces.

Survivors include his wife of 46 years, Alice Lech Laning of McLean; a daughter, Maria Laning LeBerre of Herndon; and three grandchildren.

Admiral Laning will be laid to rest with full milirary honors in Arlington National Cemetery on 17 July 2008.

NOTE: His brother, Richard Boyer Laning, Captain, United States Navy, is also buried in Arlington National Cemetery, as is his father, Richard Henry Laning, Rear Admiral, United States Navy.

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