Maintenance window scheduled to begin at February 14th 2200 est. until 0400 est. February 15th


Forgot Password?

    Defense Visual Information Distribution Service Logo

    NMRI and the Dawn of Navy Medicine’s R&D Global Enterprise

    NMRI and the Dawn of Navy Medicine’s R&D Global Enterprise

    Photo By André B. Sobocinski, Historian | Original home of the Naval Medical Research Center's predecessor command, the Naval...... read more read more



    Story by André B. Sobocinski, Historian 

    U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery

    “I do not know what you have heard about NMRI as to its reputation among those who can evaluate research. From what I have heard it appears that it has already attained a stature in the scientific world and has made contributions to research in its short life of which a much older institution might be justly proud.”
    --Capt. E.G. Hakansson, Commanding Officer, Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI), 1946


    Before there was the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC) there was the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI).

    On October 27, 1942, NMRI was established at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) in Bethesda, Md. Over the next three years, its complement of military and civilian scientists and researchers—some of the most brilliant minds in the country—embarked on an ambitious mission of “comprehensive research” relating to all aspects of military “problems.” Many of these efforts had immediate impact on the warfighters and accomplished what Navy Surgeon General Rear Admiral Ross McIntire summarized as the: “prevention of disease, the relief of the suffering and the saving of lives.”

    Behnke’s Vision:

    By World War II, medical research in the Navy was far from unchartered territory. In the first decades of the twentieth century, physician-scientist Rear Adm. Edward Stitt and others had turned the Naval Medical School into the nation’s premier tropical medicine and naval hygiene research center. And the inter-wars years (1919-1941) saw a vast array of pioneering medical research conducted at the Naval Medical School in Washington, D.C., the Submarine Base in New London, Conn., the Experimental Diving Unit, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C., aviation bases in Pensacola, Philadelphia, and San Diego and, of course, aboard ships at sea. During this period Navy medical personnel helped unlock mysteries like decompression sickness, anti-G forces, oversaw the development of liquid plasma, spearheaded the development and testing of tetanus toxoid, and a means for combating heat stress aboard surface ships.

    Capt. Albert Behnke, MC, USN, one of the Navy’s leading medical researchers of the 1930s, is often credited as one of the fathers of NMRI. Behnke is best known today for his pioneering work on decompression sickness, human body composition and support the USS Squalus submarine rescue effort, but Behnke was also a leading researcher on heat stress. While a member of a board to study air conditioning in relation to damage control, Behnke conducted a series of studies aboard the ships Nevada, Tuscaloosa and New Orleans looking at the impact of shipboard environments on combat efficiency. The operational value of this work gained the attention of Rear Adm. Ross McIntire, who then served as both Surgeon General and primary physician to the President Franklin Roosevelt. McIntire shared Behnke’s work with Roosevelt who took interest. Having the ear of Roosevelt, Behnke began advocating for a laboratory dedicated to conducting medical research on issues impacting the Navy and Marine Corps. Roosevelt supported the plan and Behnke got his wish. On October 27, 1942, NMRI opened its doors from Building 17 on the campus of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

    NMRI originally consisted of 13 officers, 50 enlisted men and one civilian. By war’s end the Institute’s staff expanded to some 81 officers and 125 enlisted personnel.

    Plankowners included Capt. (later Rear Adm.) William Mann, MC, USN and Cmdr. Robert H. Draeger who served as NMRI’s first CO and XO, respectively. At the time, Mann was best known as one of Navy Medicine’s leading strategic thinkers and decades before helped initiate the concept of “field medical training” at Quantico. Prior to reporting to NMRI, Draeger had earned some renown as an inventor of a microfilm camera originally designed to photograph publications at sea and later used by libraries. In the inaugural year of NMRI, Mann and Draeger were joined by Dr. Andrew C. Ivy, the institute’s first scientific director (1942-1943). Ivy, a Northwestern University professor of physiology, later earn prominence as one of the developers of the Nuremburg Medical Code, a set of research principles on human use experimentation.

    Organized under four research departments—naval environmental medicine, naval preventive medicine, dental research and equipment research—NMRI’s mission became increasingly specialized during the war.
    In July 1943, the four research departments were reorganized into “facilities” for: Animal Laboratories, Aviation, Bacteriology, Biochemistry, Biophysics, Chemistry and assay, Analysis, Experimental Dentistry, Diving and Underwater Physiology, Heating, Air conditioning and Ventilation, Industrial Hygiene, a Library, Nutrition, Pathology, Personal Equipment Design, Pharmacology and Toxicology, Physiology, Psychology and Statistics, Psychometric and Metabolism, Hematology, Technical Shops, Experimental Surgery, and Virology.

    NMRI’s First Research Projects:

    NMRI categorized its first research projects into five categories: general (affecting the Navy as a whole), maritime medicine aboard surface vessels, submarine and diving medicine, aviation medicine and field medicine.

    Throughout World War II, NMRI investigated practically every problem relating to the health of Navy and Marine Corps; and there is no denying that the organization had an air of a medical version “Q Branch” from the 007 novels and films. NMRI scientists researched and developed first aid kits for aviators, protective creams for flashburns, insect repellents and fungistatic agents, tested new uses for Penicillin, invented resuscitation devices, explored prevention of general effects of cold water immersion, new treatments for seasickness, transportation methods for whole blood, stood up the Navy’s first mobile nutrition units, and oversaw new treatments for and prevention techniques to ward against tropical diseases (including treatment for malaria, scrub typhus and schistosomiasis).

    But, all of these developments would follow in the wake of its first assigned project: devising a full-proof method for desalinating seawater and developing special food rations for the war’s unfortunate sea castaways.

    Although there are no official statistics on how many World War II Sailors, Marines, merchant mariners, military aviators, and others awaited rescue at sea in World War II, a conservative estimate is tens of thousands. Following the loss of their ships or aircraft, these castaways would often face a gauntlet of inclement weather conditions, the threat of secondary enemy attacks, and sharks. Even if they escaped these hazards, and even if they did not suffer any injuries or wounds, they still needed sustenance until eventual rescue. Without food, the average person can survive for about 21 days; and without water for about three days.

    Early 1943, NMRI staff began experimenting with chemically processing seawater so that it could be drunk by personnel adrift on life rafts. In February 1943, NMRI physiologist Lt. Cmdr. Clair Spealman, H (S), USNR developed a pioneering multi-process filtering system for desalinating seawater. A similar, but simpler method was soon after developed by NMRI in conjunction with by the Permutit Water Conditioning Company. The “Permutit-Navy Desalting Kit,” as it was known, contained a plastic drinking bag with a cloth filter at its base and five charcoal briquettes of desalting chemical. The castaway would collect seawater in the drinking bag, drop in a briquette, seal the bag and shake it. Within 20 minutes they would have access to a pint of fresh water that they could drink through a tube beneath the filter. By war’s end, the kit was adopted by the Army, Navy as well as American Airlines.

    Food was another concern for NMRI researchers who sought to develop a ready supply of emergency rations that could “lend itself to easy consumption and efficient metabolism.” Known as the “NMRI Emergency Ration,” these small cans consisted of high fat butterscotch tablets, hard candy fruit drops (containing citric acid to promote the flow of saliva), malted milk tablets, chewing gum, multivitamin tablets and a waterproof pouch. By 1944, the U.S. Navy adopted these emergency rations as part of a survival kit for aviators as well as to serve as the “U.S. Navy Emergency Ration for Life Rafts.”

    A Legacy:

    The Navy’s Surgeon General Ross McIntire once outlined the Medical Department World War II mission as “…to maintain naval tradition by keeping as many men at as many guns as many days as possible.” There is no denying that through its vast output of basic and applied research, NMRI helped the Medical Department better achieve this mission.

    Over the ensuing decades NMRI was joined by other medical laboratories and research detachments across the globe, all united to meet a central mission to enhance the health, the readiness and the performance of Navy and Marine personnel. Through reorganizations and re-envisioning of the R&D Enterprise, NMRI changed from a hub for Navy Medicine’s research activities to a subordinate laboratory of the Naval Medical Research and Development Command (1974-1998) to finally, in 1998, an Echelon-4 headquarters command known as the Naval Medical Research Center.

    Today, NMRC’s mission and its role in the U.S. Navy, remains as vital as ever and stands tall as Navy Medicine’s “premier research organization with the vision of world-class, operationally relevant health and medical research solutions.”


    About NMRC. Naval Medical Research Center, Retrieved from:

    The History of the Medical Department in World War II: A Narrative and Pictorial Volume (NAVMED P-5031), Volume 1. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1953.

    Ullman, V. Research in preventive medicine. The Hospital Corps Quarterly, April 1945.


    Date Taken: 10.26.2022
    Date Posted: 10.26.2022 11:37
    Story ID: 432035

    Web Views: 401
    Downloads: 0