WWI Veteran Dr. Frank Boston was a pioneer and laid the groundwork for modern EMS

Published: 25 January 2023

By George Whitehair
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site

Volunteer Medical Service Corps ambulance

As we observe Black History month, more facts have come to light about Army Veteran Major Frank Boston, who served in World War I. In addition to being the first African American to start both a hospital and an ambulance service, he may also be the pioneer of modern emergency medical services.

“In my work with the Volunteer Medical Service Corps (VMSC), I re-examined Dr. Boston and the history of the VMSC and I believe we can establish that Dr. Boston and his VMSC are the original pioneers in emergency medical services in the country, 40 years earlier than the formal recognition of that field,” stated George Whitehair, lead researcher, historian and author of the Boston story.

Few people realize that modern emergency medical services (EMS) have only been around a little over 60 years, and prior to that time, many ambulance services were operated by funeral homes. I also connected with Professor Andrew T. Simpson’s, who published an interesting article while at Carnegie Mellon and found that “as late as 1966, about one half of the country’s ambulance services were provided by morticians.” The hearses were used to transport people to the hospital, but the drivers had little or no first aid training, although the vehicles were large enough to accommodate the long stretchers. That is something most of us in the EMS profession know, but it is not common knowledge with the general public, echoed Shane Wheeler, current Chief of the VMSC.

Photo of the VMSC team

Photo of the VMSC team taken at the National World War I Memorial in Washington, DC

Yet back in 1933, Dr. Boston, a military trained field surgeon, who learned the need for immediate emergency care from serving in the war, had already embarked on rigid training and strict discipline in organizing a paramilitary unit that was known as the First Aid Squad. Similar to the military field medics, Boston made sure his volunteers wore uniforms with an insignia that is still used to this day. Dr. Boston applied his wartime experiences for the public good with the development of the first professional ambulance corps in this area, if not in the country, the First Aid Emergency Squad, which would eventually become known as the Volunteer Medical Service Corps (VMSC). Some major accomplishments of the Corps include its spectacular rescue work in the hurricanes of 1936, where rivers flooded communities and the Corps provided help to civilians.

The VMSC is located in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and is now led by Chief Wheeler. Handling approximately 12,000 medical/trauma calls per year, the VMSC covers the North Penn Area of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Celebrating its 90th birthday this year, the Corps started as a dream and the vision of one man – Dr. Frank Erdman Boston. Major Boston served in France with the 92nd Division (Buffalo soldiers) after training at Fort Des Moines in Iowa. This Iowa Fort was designated as the first training camp for African American officers that served in World War I. Dr. Frank Erdman Boston was one of those men, who despite the reluctance of the country for African Americans to serve in the military, served bravely and proudly, becoming an inspiration to future generations.

VMSC Dr. Boston display

VMSC Capt. Rich Roberts in front of the Dr. Boston display

“We now discovered one more hidden accomplishment of this great man, that he was a visionary, and we hope to establish that Dr. Boston started one of the first EMS type of services in the country,” declared Whitehair.

The VMSC recently installed a permanent display to honor Dr. Boston. Situated inside the lobby of the VMSC ambulance headquarters in Hatfield, PA. is “an authentic army uniform dated from World War I, donated by the Fort Des Moines Museum and Educational Center. There is also a U.S. flag inside the display that was flown over the Pentagon on July 4, 2022 and a sword that was previously bestowed upon Major Frank Boston for his service as commander of the ambulance service.  Dr. Boston may be one of the most underrated and forgotten heroes of our nation.

To learn more about Dr. Frank Erdman Boston, visit www.bostonlegacyfoundation.org.  To learn more about the VMSC, go to www.vmsclansdale.com. We also created a comic book highlighting Dr. Boston and his team of volunteers in action,  www.docbostonadventures.com.

George Whitehair is the Executive Director of the Boston Legacy Foundation, and the lead researcher, historian and author of the Boston story. You can email us at [email protected].

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