The Coast Guard and Its 'Life-Saving' Doctor

A new film explores the life-saving work of the US Coast Guard. It turns out, the Coast Guard can trace its history back to a courageous physician.

“Heroism feels and never reasons, and therefore is always right.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Few beliefs are more secure in today’s world of medicine than that physicians are life-savers. My physician-dad wore his life-saving credentials almost like a badge of honor.

About this matter, I saw a very good movie this past weekend, The Finest Hours—a harrowing and heroic tale about the courage of US Coast Guard. The 1952 events depicted in the film are often called "the greatest small-boat rescue mission in US Coast Guard history.”

Few know that the predecessor to the coast guard was something called the US Life-Saving Service founded in the 1848; the two merged in 1915. Back in the day life-saving service crews, men who patrolled the beaches day and night and in all weather, routinely risked their lives in grand maritime rescues.

The movie demonstrates their bravery in action. I won’t gave away the details, for those who haven’t seen the film. But it might please you to know that the man who developed the whole concept of life-saving sea rescues was a physician, Dr. William A. Newell.

Aside from his humanitarian efforts, the Ohio-born Dr. Newell had quite the political resume—as a governor (in both New Jersey and Washington state) and as a US congressman. Offices he used to save lives.

Newell, who wrote the law to create the life-saving service, represented the Jersey Shore area from Sandy Hook to Little Egg Harbor. A friend of President Abraham Lincoln, Newell later became the superintendent of the US Life-Saving Association, NJ District when it was officially formed in 1878.

Dr. Newell had witnessed a shipwreck himself, shortly after his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1839. During a storm that summer he had watched helplessly from the beach on Long Beach Island, NJ as the Count Teresto was wrecked and all hands aboard were lost. Seeing the dead bodies washed ashore the next day had a profound impact him. Being an educated man, a scientist by training, Newell knew something had to be done.

Having completed a sizable amount of research on the topic, I can tell you that the history of the US Life-Saving Service is an amazingly rich one.

In the mid-1800s the 10,000-mile US coastline—between Cape Cod, MA and Cape Hatteras, NC—had the most awful record of shipwrecks. Of this region, the New Jersey coast (my home) was notoriously the worst, known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

A growing American population and demand for goods increased the need for shipping vessels, both American and European. During those times transatlantic shipping was at a record high and all sorts of vessels transversed the waters off New Jersey. Back then ships navigated by sun, stars, moon, and the horizon. Thousands of passenger and commercial ships moved up and down the coast and naturally an alarming number of shipwrecks occurred.

Revered as the heroes of the Atlantic Coast, life-saving crews routinely risked their lives in grand maritime rescues. Their motto was “you have to go out, but nothing says you have to come back.” Their work was remembered in story and song back then, but today's society has largely forgotten the great sacrifice and dedication of these men who risked all to save others.

In later years, after the invention of the Marconi wireless and reliable steamships, shipwrecks were less common. Still, for 60 years shipwrecks and the US Life Saving Service shaped the history of the Atlantic coastline. This new film helps preserve their life-saving lore.