Medico Rooftop Radio Doctor’s Office

Jan 4, 2012

by Jenny Frémont, Archives Fellow, Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies

MAN PUT HIS TONGUE AGAINST REFRIGERATOR PIPE AND GOT IT FROZEN; HAVE THAWED IT OUT AND IT IS NOW BLISTERED AND SWOLLEN BUT NOT PAINFUL. ARRIVING HONOLULU FRIDAY; HOW CAN I HELP HIM MEANWHILE?

Such was the message dispatched by the SS CANADIAN to the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI). A deckhand had managed to get his tongue stuck to the refrigerator and now the captain needed advice on how to treat his injury. The recommended treatment included mouthfuls of a warm water and baking soda solution and sweet oil (olive oil) to coat the tongue. Depending on the severity of the blistering, he was advised to survive on soup, gruel and oatmeal until arriving at port in Honolulu where he could consult a doctor in person.

SCI’s Medico radio service relayed this advice to the captain of the SS CANADIAN across the Pacific by radiogram. Second in priority only to “S O S” distress signals, the call signal for SCI’s radio station KDKF received preference over everything else transmitted over the airwaves. Medico first launched in November 1920; in collaboration with the United States Health Service and the Radio Corporation of America, it quickly evolved from a 9-to-5 operation to a popular and much-needed 24-hour-a-day service.

Radio Station KDKF operated from the roof of SCI’s headquarters at 25 South Street in Lower Manhattan. Doctors at the Public Health Service Hospital No. 70 responded to medical and surgical calls from ships at sea, relaying advice by telephone to KDKF, which then transmitted instructions back to the ships by radiogram. SCI provided the service free to ships sailing under all flags, regardless of nationality—so long as they had a wireless radio. For ships beyond the reach of the radio service, “appeals for advice” were relayed from ship to ship until the radiogram signal reached port. An article in the June 1920 issue of The Lookout noted, “Any vessel that hears the call will know that the advice of a doctor is needed and if there is a doctor on board he will give it. If not the call will be relayed and sent on and on until it reaches the Seamen’s Church Institute in New York.”

Before SCI launched the KDKF medical and surgical radio service in 1920, ships’ captains relied on the Handbook for the Ship’s Medicine Chest published by the Marine Hospital Service. SCI’s Manual on Ship Sanitation and First-Aid for Merchant Seamen, first published in 1922, also provided much-needed medical resources for merchant ships. Devoted to care of the ship and self, SCI’s Manual served “to meet one of the greatest humanitarian needs on board our Merchant Vessels.” By 1956, SCI had printed six editions, distributing them to officers and members of the Merchant Marine. The “small, comprehensive, text-book on general ship sanitation and hygiene” provided a quick reference for medical and surgical conditions that could be obtained on board while at sea as well as directions for disease treatment. This was usually a captain’s only option, as fewer than a quarter of ships at sea during this era included trained medical doctors on board. To further aid the captain at sea, Captain Robert Huntington, an SCI employee, taught a Medical and First Aid Course. SCI required young officers enrolled at its Navigation and Marine Engineering School to learn how to care for the sick and wounded before receiving their certificate.

SCI continues to promote health and wellness of merchant mariners to this day. Most recently, SCI has led the effort to understand the effects of piracy on seafarers, publishing Guidelines on Post-Piracy Care for Seafarers.