Since the United States Army, in 1848 during the Mexican War, first established at El Paso a temporary post that was named Fort Bliss, the facility has provided medical care for soldiers posted to the frontier. Fort Bliss was periodically moved until a permanent post, which boasted a hospital, was built in 1879. Railway construction, however, resulted in the final relocation of Fort Bliss in 1890. Three years later a hospital was erected. During a post refurbishment in 1905–06 a new hospital was constructed because the first had fallen into disrepair. During the Mexican Punitive Expedition in 1916, the post hospital became Department Base Hospital No. 2 and served the entire Southern Department. After the U.S. entered World War I, Department Base Hospital No. 2 became a U.S. Base Hospital between April and September 1918 and treated medical, surgical, tuberculosis, and venereal disease cases.
After World War I, an overcrowded Fort Bliss was expanded. The U. S. Surgeon General argued that a 400-bed hospital was needed, so the War Department approved construction of a new hospital, named after Maj. William Beaumont, on June 26, 1920. William Beaumont (1785–1853) was “the undisputed founder of American physiology” for his research on Alexis St. Martin, a trapper who suffered an accidental gunshot wound that, when healed, left a hole with a view into his stomach, which enabled Beaumont to explore the processes of digestion. The William Beaumont General Hospital (WBGH) opened on July 1, 1921, and consisted of 41 buildings and 403 beds after completion. WBGH’s staff had six officers, two nurses, and thirty enlisted men. Within a decade, in part due to Depression-era budget cuts shuttering other post hospitals, WBGH served the entire western portion of VIII Corps’ area encompassing Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas.
When World War II started in Europe on September 1, 1939, the U. S. Surgeon General developed a plan to establish a Medical Department Enlisted Technician School (MDETS) at five locations, including WBGH, if mobilization was declared. These plans were put into effect when the U. S. Army partially mobilized a year later, and six MDETSs were in operation on April 1, 1941. In July 1941 WBGH’s monthly quota was 300 students who trained as laboratory, dental, medical, pharmacy, surgical, veterinary, and x-ray technicians. WBGH was the only location other than the Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where veterinary-enlisted technicians trained. The bulk of students, however, trained in medical and surgical fields. The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, triggered full mobilization, so the Medical Department added four more MDETSs and increased student quotas. In July 1942 WBGH’s monthly quota was 350 students. Students were instructed in two eight-hour shifts due to a shortage of facilities. In July 1943, at its peak, WBGH’s monthly quota was 720 students out of 5,794 students being trained at other MDETSs. The demand for medical-enlisted technicians soon declined, however, allowing MDETSs to abandon double-shift training as the number of students being trained was greatly reduced. WBGH continued to treat sick or injured soldiers and had a physical therapy and occupational therapy center. In December 1943 a plastic surgery clinic was opened to care for soldiers disfigured in combat. Eventually, an artificial eye clinic, an orthopedic surgery center, and a neuro-psychiatric ward were created too. WBGH expanded to 174 buildings with 4,064 beds and a staff of hundreds. In the year before World War II ended on September 2, 1945, 26,358 patients received treatment at WBGH. By the time the MDETS finally closed on December 31, 1945, an estimated 16,000 medical technicians, including more than 1,000 members of the Women’s Army Corps, had been trained at WBGH.
Following World War II, the army shrank, so it closed all except ten of sixty-three general hospitals. WBGH was one that remained opened. The Medical Department lacked personnel, so by 1947 enlisted men at WBGH often worked sixty to seventy-two hours each week. Once the Korean War broke out in June 1950, the army rushed to hire civilians to help overwhelmed hospitals care for soldiers training in the U.S. or returning from overseas. Patients were divided between “hospital” wards, for patients that required close attention from professional staff, and “clinic” wards, for patients that required minimum attention from enlisted men. After the Korean War ended in July 1953, the Medical Department lacked funds to modernize all fifty-two general hospitals, so WBGH continued to use World War II facilities. Nevertheless, medical needs had increased due to the transition to a draftee force and changes in Medicare laws about treating military dependents, so general hospitals began shifting from hospital bed care to more economical outpatient clinics because the development of new technology, therapy, and drugs enabled it. WBGH opened a new eye, ear, nose, and throat clinic in 1960 and developed an open-heart surgery program (eliminated in 1964 as underused). When the Vietnam War escalated after March 1965, WBGH again treated wounded soldiers due to a defense policy stipulating returnees should be cared for at the hospital nearest their home. This policy and an ongoing hospital construction program mitigated overcrowding. WBGH was now a teaching hospital and established research services in 1966.
By the time the U. S. Army began withdrawing from Vietnam in June 1969, WBGH’s facilities were old, outmoded, and inconveniently arranged. A new hospital consisting of an eight-story tower atop a four-story base with 611 beds was dedicated on July 2, 1972, and then re-designated the William Beaumont Army Medical Center (WBAMC). New medical advances meant more of WBAMC became dedicated to outpatient clinics, and by 1980 it only had 463 beds. The Omar N. Bradley building, named after the World War II general who lived in a special residence on Fort Bliss in his final years, was added to WBAMC in 1982 and provided additional clinical and administrative facilities. By this time WBAMC supported an all-volunteer force and provided short-term hospitalization, medical, dental, and specialized treatment for military personnel and dependents. Additionally, WBAMC supported nearby posts, treated patients from other hospitals, gave care to Veterans Affairs beneficiaries, had a Medical Clinical Investigation program, oversaw an alcohol and drug abuse prevention and control program, operated a residential alcoholism treatment facility, assured comprehensive veterinary services, supervised health care for those eligible in the region, chaired the Region 4 Tri-Service Regional Review Committee, ran various graduate medical education programs, ran dental residency programs, participated in the Army Clinical Clerkship Program, gave specialty training for Army Nurse Corps officers, conducted enlisted training courses, and held affiliation agreements with a host of educational institutions in Texas, New Mexico, and even California. WBAMC survived base closures after the end of the Cold War in 1991, which resulted in the downsizing of the army, and actually expanded when a Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care Center was added to WBAMC in November 1995. Only sixty-one old WBGH buildings remained in 2002, but WBAMC still used four of them.
In the first part of the twenty-first century WBAMC continued to provide care for soldiers, including those wounded during the Global War on Terror, and their dependents. As of the 2010s WBAMC only had 150 beds but on average saw 1,200 patients, performed more than 4,150 laboratory procedures, and filled more than 2,160 pharmacy requests daily. WBAMC is a Level 3 Trauma Center, one of two in El Paso County, and treats 10 to 15 percent of trauma cases. WBAMC is still an important training facility with approximately 100 officers and enlisted men being trained in medical specialties at any time. Furthermore, 70 physicians, 27 interns, and 43 residents receive medical training at WBAMC. As of 2019 a new campus including a hospital with 125 beds, two clinical buildings, an administrative building, and a clinical investigation building was under construction to replace the aging facilities at WBAMC.