January 1946

Seventy-five years ago, on Jan. 3, 1946, President Harry S. Truman formally established the forerunner of today’s Veterans Health Administration, the Department of Medicine and Surgery within the Veterans Administration, when he signed Public Law 79-293.

This landmark legislation cemented sweeping changes to Veterans’ health care. It was introduced by VA Administrator Omar Bradley and Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Paul Hawley the previous fall.

Pictured above, Dr. Paul Magnusen, General Omar Bradley and General Paul Hawley, the architects of the Department of Medicine and Surgery, 1946.

Just one day later, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois placed 56 residents at Hines Hospital. It became the very first academically affiliated VA hospital.

Throughout the rest of 1946 and into 1947, Bradley and Hawley, armed with a half a billion-dollar budget, continued their charge to change the face of VA health care services, undertaking many key initiatives.

In the words of one VA physician, “The effects of this law have been more gratifying than we had ever dared to expect.”

Positive changes with Public Law 79-293

  • Establishing the Office of Academic Affairs and creating partnerships with 63 medical schools by 1948.
  • Recruiting 4,000 full-time VA physicians, nurses, technicians and other medical personnel.
  • Converting 55 former military hospitals into Veteran facilities. The law also planned an additional 70 new hospitals, constituting the largest hospital building project in American history.
  • Dedicating mental health services and facilities into the design and operations of new hospitals. The law also allocated research space devoted to study prosthetics, paraplegia, epilepsy, tuberculosis, spinal cord therapy, blindness and more.
  • Creating a pilot program known as the “Hometown Plan.” The plan allows Veterans to be treated by local physicians, expanding access to care where VA care was not available, and providing payments for services for six million Veterans.
  • Establishing the VA Voluntary Service to augment and complement VA’s professional health care staff. VS gained 72,000 volunteers by the end of the 1940s.
  • Establishing the Veterans Canteen Service to provide low-cost goods to Veterans, their families and caregivers.
  • Expanding women’s medical care by hiring Dr. Margaret D. Craighill, VA’s first Chief Medical Consultant on the medical care of women Veterans and appointing the first 10 women doctors.

Public Law 79-293

Setting the foundation for today’s VHA

In creating the foundation for the modern VHA of today, the objectives of Bradley and Hawley still live on 75 years later. Countless doctors, nurses, volunteers, students, and public servants strive to make their own miracles every day to ensure Veterans health care remains second to none in this Nation.

Over the years, these collaborations have resulted in groundbreaking innovations, including the cardiac pacemaker, nicotine smoking patch and the first successful liver transplant.

There have been advancements in artificial limbs, including the Seattle Foot and the LUKE arm, three Nobel Prizes, and many more innovations that have not only impacted Veterans but the entire world.

Dr. Hawley’s comments upon President Truman signing the legislation creating the Department of Medicine and Surgery still inspire and challenge VHA today: “With the signature of the Medical Department Act, our objective is clear, a medical service for the Veteran that is second to none in the world. Around the splendid nucleus of excellent men and women in the VA medical service, we shall build an outstanding service.”

Marking the 75th Anniversary

2021 marks the 75th Anniversary of the creation of what would become VHA. Throughout the year, VHA organizations and entities will host special programs and other commemorative events and activities as we look back at a legacy of service and look forward toward the future of care.

Keep watching the VAntage Point blogs and other VA social media and communications platforms for more information on VHA’s 75th Anniversary plans.

Katie Delacenserie serves as the historian for the Veterans Health Administration.

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Published on Jan. 5, 2021

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