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One for the History Books: USU Professor To Retire After 40 Years

Dr. Dale Smith speaking - there is a man to his side in the background of the photo.

By Ian Neligh


“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” — Robert F. Kennedy


History is a powerful tool. 

“But it has to be good history,” said Dr. Dale Smith, professor of Military Medicine and History at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU). 

For 40 years, Smith worked to teach good history to more than 9,000 medical school graduates and over a thousand other professionals at USU.

“I think it has made a difference to their patients, to their colleagues, and their practice,” Smith said. “And as long as you’re making a difference it’s easy to come to work every day.”

Smith began teaching regularly at the university in 1982 and saw the school as it was forged into the country’s preeminent university for military medicine. Smith is retiring this August, after 40 years of empowering the graduates of USU with the lessons of history.

Smith was the chair of the university’s Military Medical History department and in 2006 became acting senior vice president before he was selected for a five-year term in 2007. Six years later, in 2013, he returned to the classroom.

During his long and accomplished career, he taught in military hospitals around the world. Over the years, he has received a host of awards including USU’s “Outstanding Civilian Educator.”

“I was giving people tools that would make them better officers, better clinicians, and better people, perhaps,” Smith said. “And any time you get the chance as an educator to use your expertise to help people help others that’s a huge reward.”


Good History

Born in central Florida, Smith recalls a moment from his childhood that helped instill in him the importance of the right use of history.

A portrait photo of Dr. Dale Smith
Dr. Dale Smith, professor of military medicine and history at
the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences is
retiring after 40 years of teaching medical school students.
(Photo Credit: USU Photo)
After going through eighth-grade history Smith said he purchased a plaque of Robert E. Lee and battles of the Confederacy. He said it was the history and heritage he had learned and as such, placed it on his wall. 

“My father came in that night and he said, ‘Dale, I want you to think about the person you’ve just put on your wall. I want you to think about what he stood for,’” Smith said. “And I had the standard answers of ‘honor and commitment, leadership.’ He said ‘let me tell you a different story.’”

His father told him Lee had a commissioning promise that he broke to his country and his men. That he rebelled against the lawful authority to enslave people. His father then told him he needed to decide if that was someone who belonged on his wall.

“Well, General Lee came down — and as I later went off to Duke (University) and studied history I realized that a lot of our history was incomplete,” Smith said.

Smith said he came to learn many citizens do not have a broad understanding of history and that what is told in many textbooks provides a narrative told from the point of view of the winners. 

“Now there are people who say all history is told from the point of view of winners but good history is not,” Smith said. “Good history is representative and lets people learn from it and take from it what is useful for various problems. So when I went to graduate school I was looking for a way to have history be useful.”

And it wasn’t long before he found it.


Heritage

Three men sitting on a desk, posing for a photo. The left and center (Dr. Joy) men have dark rimmed glasses on. The man on the right is Dr. Dale Smith.
Dr. Robert T. Joy (center), former Commandant and head of the Military
Medical History section at USU, was instrumental in recruiting Dr. Dale Smith
(right) to the USU faculty in 1982. Smith will retire Aug. 31, 2021.
(Photo Credit: USU Photo)
Smith graduated from Duke University in 1973 with the help of a Navy ROTC scholarship. He then attended the University of Minnesota as a graduate student where his interests slowly drifted from the history of biology and medicine to the history of medicine. He earned his doctorate in 1979. One of Smith’s professors was a friend of Col. (Dr.) Robert Joy, the founding Commandant of Students and first professor of military medicine at USU. 

“(Joy) began to stick history in because there was no heritage to the Uniformed Services University,” Smith said. “If you went to West Point, you had famous predecessors back to Ulysses S. Grant, General John Pershing, General Eisenhower — so there was a heritage of being a West Point graduate. Annapolis had the same kind of tradition but USU had no such tradition.”

Smith said Joy used military medical history and the famous doctors of the past to help instill a sense of professional heritage in the students. Soon he invited guests, including Smith, to come and teach the students the broader history of medicine. In the early ‘80s the university offered Smith a tenured track professorship at the university.


“I always enjoyed Dr. Smith’s great way of telling a story.  He made history interesting. The education he delivered really hit home later on deployments when I’d catch myself remembering his lessons as we worked operations or planning." - Air Force Col. (Dr.) Sean Jersey, USU Class of 2007  


According to Smith, when looking at military history to build a shared heritage for military doctors he looked for examples that could be emulated such as Major (Dr.) Jonathan Letterman, “the father of battlefield medicine.”

“(During the Civil War) he recognized, in order to have a system of evacuation, you had to be successful as both a staff officer and a commander,” Smith said. “You had to command your medical troops to make the system work together — but you had to be a successful staff officer to get permission to utilize that system of the battle plan of the commander.”

Smith pointed to other examples such as Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Theodore Lyster who, during World War I, went to France and saw the loss of pilots to crashes mostly due to pilot error.

“He began to interview people, and he recognized they were flying too much, they were fatigued, they didn’t have adequate examinations,” Smith said. “They were communicating with pilots through semaphore flags on the ground, you read the signal flags, but there was no color blind testing.”

Smith said Lyster introduced the concept of aviation testing and fought to get crew rest installed. At the same time, naval officer Joel Boone, assigned to the Marines, won the Medal of Honor and six Silver Stars for treating casualties under fire. 

“He did what other Medal of Honor winners did in the Civil War — they rushed forward into the fight to help somebody who was shot; you were under fire, you were a risk, it was heroic,” Smith said. “But he also recognized that it was stupid. Because he was the medical provider for a whole regiment and so he took an idea from the enemy of ordering his litter bearers to learn first aid and he created the modern hospital corpsman who could then go forward and provide care.”

Three months after Boone earned the Medal of Honor, one of his corpsmen earned the first hospital corpsman Medal of Honor for evacuating Marines and taking care of them while under fire.

“So those are the types of people you want to claim as your professional ancestors,” Smith said.


Making a Difference

In the early ‘90s, Smith remembers getting a call from a former student orthopedic surgeon stationed in Somalia. The graduate recalled a lesson from World War II surgical history where doctors built jury-rigged fracture tables out of local materials. The surgeon wanted the original text describing how the tables were built with wood and rope. 

“He had not been able to take a fracture table because they were evacuating Americans with broken long bones, but natives were being brought in and they wanted to take care of them but he needed a fracture table to do it,” Smith said. “So he was going to build a World War II fracture table in Somalia. That kind of utilization of history meant that I was succeeding.”

Dr. Dale Smith standing in front of a group of students outdoors.
For 30 years, USU historian Dr. Dale Smith has brought students to the historic battle site of Antietam to learn about Civil War history.
(Photo Credit: USU Photo)

Smith said the example was just one of many over the years, some from war zones, asking how military doctors had handled various issues successfully from history. It was exactly what Smith had hoped his students had learned. Good history could be a highly effective tool in modern-day military medicine. 

“We have deployed our graduates from 1991 in Desert Shield/Desert Storm where about 100 of them went — to literally all of them going over the last twenty years in the various operations that surround the global war on terrorism,” Smith said. “…I still think the lessons of the past are useful.”

On Aug. 31 Smith will leave USU to retire but said he will continue to “do history.” 

“I still have some writing that I want to do,” Smith said, adding, “It’s been a wonderful career. USU has been good to me, which I have tried to repay with administrative activity, serving on boards and committees.”

His final day at the university will be at the end of August but not before giving the students one last history lesson. On Aug. 20, Smith will join about 300 students, staff and faculty at Antietam battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md., a proud tradition he began 30 years ago, to share with them medical lessons-learned during the Civil War.