The Medical Field Service School opened in 1921 at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Merritte W. Ireland, Surgeon General of the Army, organized the school to ensure lessons learned during World War I were taught to successive generations of army doctors and to capture and include lessons from future conflicts in the school’s curriculum. The school was intended to complement the Army Medical School (Washington, D.C., 1893) which provided post-graduate medical education for army doctors to prepare them to treat diseases and injuries they likely would encounter in field service. The Medical Field Service School provided instruction on nearly every other subject a doctor would need, from leading formations of medical troops to the proper method for setting up a tent hospital. With antibiotics still in the future, heavy emphasis was placed on field sanitation and hygiene.
New classes were added for dental and veterinary officers and medical non-commissioned officers. Advanced training was added to the curriculum, and in the summers reserve officers attended camps at the school. Military training slowed during the Great Depression. Money was tight, and fewer officers could travel to attend classes, but other organizations, like the Civilian Conservation Corps, used the school’s facilities for its training camps and were assisted by the school’s faculty.
With the advent of World War II, activity at the school increased. The demand for turning civilians into soldiers quickly outstripped the capacity of the Medical Field Service School, and the Medical Department opened training camps at other locations. As the war neared its end, it became apparent that Carlisle Barracks was no longer large enough to contain the school, and Pennsylvania winters made field training difficult for several months out of the year. The search began for a military post with room for the school, more training area, and a more moderate climate. In February 1946 the school closed at Carlisle Barracks and relocated to Fort Sam Houston, at that time on the northeast edge of San Antonio, Texas.
The Medical Field Service School was joined at Fort Sam Houston by the School of Military Neuropsychiatry, the Army School of Roentgenology (X-ray), and the Medical Department’s Extension Department, which administered correspondence courses. Collectively, this group of schools was designated the Army Medical Service Schools, organized under Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC). Fort Sam Houston was designated as the Army Service Forces Training Center (Medical), beginning Fort Sam Houston’s tenure as the “Home of Army Medicine.”
Upon its arrival, the Medical Field Service School occupied what had formerly been the Ninth Infantry Regiment’s barracks. Substantial renovation was required to transform rooms into classrooms, and much of the work was performed by the school’s staff. Lecterns, platforms, training aids, and chart boards, were built from scrap wood from packing crates. Beds and wall lockers were removed and stored, and soundproofing, ventilation, and seating were constructed rapidly in anticipation of the arrival of new classes. At the same time crews worked to build a demonstration area near Salado Creek on the southeast side of the post. Areas were laid out to demonstrate equipment and procedures for kitchen sanitation, personal hygiene, field latrines, disposal of animal waste, and obtaining and treating water in the field. A sixth area was left in its natural state to demonstrate insect control measures.
While the barracks were being renovated, school staff also completely rewrote the curriculum for the officers’ Basic Course:
The emphasis on various subjects was shifted to fit the changed requirements of the day. Problems to be encountered on occupational duty supplanted a number of the previously-stressed hours on battlefield methods and tactics. There was a deemphasis on battlefield surgery, chemical warfare medicine, wartime personnel adjustment, and the chain-of-evacuation procedure; an added stress on rear echelon surgery, tropical medicine, psychiatric problems encountered among occupation troops, and definitive treatment of patients.
--Technical Report of Activities of the Army Medical Department Schools and the Medical Field Service School for Fiscal Year 1945–46
Less than two months after personnel arrived from Carlisle, the first class of 500 student officers arrived at Fort Sam Houston; a second class followed four weeks later.
In 1947 the Army Medical Service Schools were renamed once again as the Medical Field Service School, incorporating all the separate schools under BAMC. That year also marked a turning point when the school began its new Hospital Administration Course, taking an emerging civilian specialty and adapting it to military purpose. In 1951 the Medical Field Service School partnered with Baylor University to form the Army-Baylor University Program in Hospital Administration. In 1953 the program awarded its first master’s degrees. The program continues to train the military’s hospital administrators to the present day.
The Korean War brought larger classes to the Medical Field Service School and casualties to BAMC—thus greatly increasing the military population at Fort Sam Houston. By November 1951, 20,000 officer and enlisted students had graduated from school courses since the beginning of the war. Following training many of the school’s graduates reported for duty in Korea. As the war continued, lessons learned were brought back to the school and incorporated into the curriculum. Beginning in 1952 the school began incorporating courses to counter guerilla tactics.
The end of the Korean War eased the training load on the school but also provided the opportunity to incorporate new courses for students. The helicopter was first used to evacuate a few patients during World War II, but during the Korean War it was routinely used for casualty evacuation and soldiers received training to ensure patients were transported safely. Soldiers were prepared also for fighting on a nuclear battlefield in the event of war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Vietnam War created new training requirements. Jungle warfare was emphasized, and new equipment like the inflatable MUST (Medical Unit, Self-Contained, Transportable) hospital was set up at Camp Bullis where soldiers trained to install and operate the modern field hospitals. Trauma training also figured prominently in training activities, and new training aids allowed soldiers to train on realistic mannequins, improving the trainees’ ability to save lives on the battlefield.
The end of the Vietnam War and the end of the draft again brought changes to the Medical Field Service School. In 1972 the school began training physician assistants, at that time a relatively new concept for extending the number of patients an individual doctor could care for. Later that year a massive new campus on Fort Sam Houston opened for business. Willis Hall, the main building, was named for Maj. Gen. John M.Willis, a World War I veteran and previous commander of the Medical Field Service School. At that same time the U. S. Army and the Medical Department underwent a significant reorganization, and, as part of the reorganization, the Academy of Health Sciences was created, absorbing the programs of the Medical Field Service School. The new designation of Academy of Health Sciences was announced during the building dedication ceremony on December 10, 1972.
Since that time, the Academy of Health Sciences has itself been incorporated into other organizations: the Army Medical Department Center and School, Health Readiness Center of Excellence, and, in 2019, the Medical Center of Excellence, which was officially named in a redesignation ceremony at Fort Sam Houston on September 16, 2019. But the central mission first outlined by Major General Ireland in 1920 remains the reason for the school’s existence: capture lessons learned in war, incorporate them into curriculum, and train medical soldiers to be prepared to care for the sick and wounded on the battlefield.