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U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research celebrates 70th anniversary

By Dr. Steven Galvan | U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Public Affairs | Aug. 13, 2018


The U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research celebrated the Institute’s 70th anniversary of operations July 18 at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. To commemorate the occasion, the USAISR held a symposium to highlight the contributions in research on trauma and burn care over the last seven decades.


“The USAISR has established and maintained a reputation of being the world’s leader in trauma and burn research,” said Col. (Dr.) Shawn Nessen, USAISR commander and trauma consultant to the Army Surgeon General. “That was accomplished through a dedicated staff and leaders who cared about our combat wounded.”


Two former USAISR commanders – Drs. Basil Pruitt Jr., 1968-1996; and John Holcomb, 2002-2008 – were invited to present historical talks during the day’s events. Pruitt and Holcomb, both retired Army colonels, provided historical insight on the Institute’s contributions to combat casualty care during the Vietnam War, as well as overseas contingency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Pruitt described how the USAISR came into existence during World War II with the discovery of the new antibiotic penicillin. The use of penicillin started in 1943 after a fire at the Coconut Grove nightclub in Boston killed 492 people and injured hundreds more in the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.


“Penicillin was used on 13 patients who were gravely ill and they rapidly improved,” Pruitt explained.


Some patients burned in Boston were transferred to Halloran General Hospital in Staten Island, New York, where Dr. Champ Lyons was charged by the Army to lead the evaluation of penicillin on the patients.


Shortly after that, Lyons was commissioned as a major in the Army to establish the first surgical research unit, or SRU. That SRU was disestablished in 1945 after WWII, but in 1947, a new SRU was created at Brooke General Hospital at Fort Sam Houston with three staff members.


Over time, the USAISR has grown to more than 840 staff members and is recognized around the world as leaders in trauma and burn research.


“The USAISR team effort is incredible and not replicated anywhere else,” Holcomb said.


Holcomb described the USAISR research efforts during his tenure, which included studies on tourniquets, combat gauze, resuscitation for burns and hemorrhage, blood products and the establishment of the Joint Trauma System.


“Thousands of burn and combat casualties are alive today because of your research efforts,” Holcomb told the USAISR staff in attendance.


The morning’s event concluded with a staff awards ceremony for personal and unit presentations. Drs. Pruitt and Holcomb were also presented with brass plaques noting their specific accomplishments during their tenures. The plaques will be displayed at the Institute for current and future staff members to recognize their contributions to combat casualty care.


“We’re going to get to the future by the events of the past,” Nessen said. “And it’s from the research from both of these individuals.


The symposium also featured talks from researchers on current studies, as well as challenges for research aimed at combat wounded.


The final event of the day was a panel discussion which included Nessen, Pruitt, Holcomb, the USAISR senior research scientist, the director of research, burn center director, a the former deputy director of the Institute. The discussion focused on the future of combat casualty care.


“We have to focus our combat casualty care research for the battlefield of the future,” said Col. (Dr.) Michael Davis, former USAISR deputy director and U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command’s director of Combat Casualty Care Research Program. “We need to be prepared ahead of time to care for the combat casualty of the future and not prepare during the fight. That’s the only way that we’ll be able to save lives on the future battlefield.”