Joel Thompson Boone was a truly extraordinary person who served his nation with great distinction as naval officer, physician, humanitarian and administrator in the first part of the twentieth century. Joel Boone was a fighter—for his country, for upholding the highest standards of the medical profession, in helping his fellow man and woman, and in repelling repeated threats to his own health.
Born and raised in the anthracite coal region of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, Boone had a rough start in life, losing his mother at an early age, enduring subsequently the presence of a mean-spirited stepsister, and working from dawn to dusk before and after school with only a cold plate for supper. But late in his teens, things began to look up when he met Helen Koch, the young lady who was to become his wife and helpmate in pursuing a long and fascinating life. Then the opportunity to spend his senior high school year at Mercersburg Academy, a fine prep school (later also attended by president Coolidge’s sons), made an important contribution to his education and personal development. It also led to a close and lasting association with the school.
Upon graduation from Mercersburg and Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, Boone joined the Navy and served with the Marines in Haiti and then again in World War I in France with the Second Division. It was this front-line exposure that offered the opportunity for heroic deeds and led to an incredible record as the most highly decorated member of the navy medical service. Among the honors he received were the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross.
Having gained the attention of senior naval officers as a result of earning the Congressional Medal of Honor among other decorations in France, Boone and his wife, Helen, were invited in 1922 to the White House for tea with First Lady Florence Harding. Only later did they learn that the purpose was to determine whether Boone was acceptable as a candidate for the position of medical officer aboard the presidential yacht, the USS Mayflower. Soon the man who might have become just another country doctor found himself on the national stage, with responsibility for caring for the health of the nation’s chief executive, his family and staff. No one was to become better acquainted with the personalities—one might even say White House secrets—of the administrations of the 1920s. Boone was a figure of importance, in a position to know a great deal. By the end of his life, he could count nine presidents–Harding through Nixon–as friends.
During his service in the White House, Boone kept detailed notes and collected a mass of documents, photographs and newspaper clippings, which in later years of life he organized in a huge account as a basis for an autobiography. Failing health prevented him from fulfilling that ambition; however, his son-in-law Milton Heller published a biography titled “The Presidents’ Doctor” and the original notes of his chapters on the Coolidge administration can be accessed via the Library of Congress Prosperity and Thrift project website. I hope to share anecdotes and excerpts from the notes on this blog.
Following White House duty, Boone served at sea and ashore in various capacities, including duty with Admiral William F. Halsey as Third Fleet Medical Officer. At the end of World War II, he was the first person to go ashore in the Tokyo Bay area, where, characteristically, he sought out and found many hundreds of neglected, war-weary U.S. and other Allied prisoners. Before retiring from the Navy in 1950, he attained the rank of Vice Admiral. During the administration of president Harry S Truman, Boone led a historic medical survey of the bituminous coal industry, which was cited in congressional hearings as recently as May 17, 2000. Subsequently, he served as chief medical director of the Veterans Administration. Following an extended illness, Boone died on April 2, 1974; he is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
In recognition of Boone’s outstanding achievements, his name has been memorialized by attaching it to a navy medical clinic in Little Creek, Virginia, Boone Hall at Mercersburg Academy, an annual award of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States, and the USS Boone, a guided missile frigate still in active service in 2011.
Text partly adapted from liner notes, “The Presidents’ Doctor” by Milton F. Heller III (2000).