Brigadier General George Miller Sternberg (June 8, 1838 – November 3, 1915) was a U.S. Army physician who is considered to have been the first bacteriologist in the United States. He was the 18th U.S. Army Surgeon General from 1893 to 1902. Pioneering German bacteriologist Robert Koch honored him with the sobriquet, “Father of American Bacteriology”.
George Sternberg was born at Hartwick Seminary, Otsego County, New York, where he spent most of his childhood. His father, Levi Sternberg, a Lutheran clergyman who later became principal of Hartwick Seminary, was descended from a German family from the Palatinate, which had settled in the Schoharie Valley in the early years of the 18th century. His mother, Margaret Levering (Miller) Sternberg, was the daughter of George B. Miller, also a Lutheran clergyman and professor of theology at the seminary, which was a Lutheran school. He was the eldest child of a large family and he was given adult responsibilities from an early age. He interrupted his studies at the seminary with a year of work in a bookstore in Cooperstown and three years of teaching in nearby rural schools. During his last year at Hartwick he was an instructor in mathematics, chemistry, and natural philosophy. He was at the same time pursuing the study of medicine with Horace Lathrop of Cooperstown. For his formal medical training he went first to Buffalo, and later to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York (M.D. degree, 1860). After graduation he settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey to practice, remaining there until the outbreak of the Civil War.
The years following the war followed the pattern of frequent moves typical of junior medical officers of the day. He married Louisa Russell, daughter of Robert Russell of Cooperstown, on October 19, 1865 and took his bride to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, from where he was soon transferred to Fort Harker, near Ellsworth in Kansas. Louisa did not accompany him to the latter post, but joined him in 1867 just prior to an outbreak of cholera. She was one of the first civilians to develop the disease which killed her within a few hours on July 15 and soon claimed a toll of about 75 people at the fort.
Sternberg also collected vertebrate fossils, including shark teeth, fish remains and mosasaur bones, from the Smoky Hill Chalk and Pierre Shale formations in western Kansas, and sent the specimens back to Washington, D.C., where they were eventually curated in the United States National Museum (Smithsonian Institution). There they were studied and later described in publications by Joseph Leidy. The type specimen of the giant Late Cretaceous fish, Xiphactinus audax, was collected by Dr. Sternberg. His work was also credited by Edward D. Cope and Samuel W. Williston. Sternberg was also responsible for getting his younger brother, Charles H. Sternberg, started in paleontology. Charles would later credit his older brother for getting many other paleontologists of the day interested in the fossil resources of Kansas.
Sternberg served at Fort Riley until July 1870, when be was ordered to Governors Island, New York. In the meantime, he had remarried on September 1, 1869, at Indianapolis, Indiana, to Martha L. Pattison, a daughter of Thomas T. N. Pattison of that city.
On December 1, 1875, Sternberg was promoted major and in April 1879 be was ordered to Washington, D. C., and detailed with the Havana Yellow Fever Commission His medical colleagues on the Commission were Doctors Stanfard Chaille of New Orleans and Juan Guiteras of Havana. Sternberg was assigned to work on the problems relating to the nature and natural history of the disease and especially to its etiology. This involved the microscopical examination of blood and tissues in which he was one of the first to employ the newly discovered process of photomicrography. He developed high efficiency in its use. In the course of this work, he spent three months in Havana closely associated with Dr. Carlos Finlay, the main proponent of the theory of mosquito transmission of yellow fever.
During the Hamburg cholera epidemic of 1892 he was detailed for duty with the New York quarantine station as a consultant on disinfection as applied to ships, their personnel, and cargo. Although some cases of the disease reached United States shores, none developed within the country.
Sternberg's nine year tenure (1893-1902) as Surgeon General coincided with immense professional progress in the field of bacteriology as well as the occurrence of the Spanish-American War. He was responsible for the 1893 establishment of the Army Medical School (precursor of today's Walter Reed Army Institute of Research), the organization of a contract dental service, the creation of the tuberculosis hospital at Fort Bayard, New Mexico, and of a special surgical hospital at Washington Barracks. The equipment of the medical school included laboratories of chemistry and bacteriology, and a liberal-minded policy was adopted in the supply of laboratory supplies to the larger military hospitals. With the Spanish-American War and its epidemic of typhoid fever, the problem of field hospitalization was confronted with fair success. (He was subjected to much criticism for conditions at these hospitals, but made little reply.) Sternberg created the Typhoid Fever Board (1898), consisting of Majors Walter Reed, Victor C. Vaughan, and Edward O. Shakespeare, which established the facts of contact infection and fly carriage of the disease. In 1900 he organized the Yellow Fever Commission, headed by Reed, which ultimately fixed the transmission of yellow fever upon a particular species of mosquito. (These became celebrated as the “Walter Reed Boards”). On his recommendation the first tropical disease board was also established in Manila (January 1900) where it continued for about the next two years. In 1901, Sternberg oversaw the establishment of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.
Sternberg was retired on account of age on June 8, 1902, and devoted the later years of his life to social welfare activities in Washington, particularly to the sanitary improvement of dwellings and to the care of tuberculous patients. Sternberg died at his home in Washington, on November 3, 1915.
Pioneer American Bacteriologist, distinguished by his studies of the causation and prevention of infectious diseases, by his discovery of the microorganism causing pneumonia, and scientific investigations of yellow fever, which paved the way for the experimental demonstration of the mode of transmission of this pestilence. Veteran of three wars, breveted for bravery in action in the Civil War and the Nez Perce Wars. Served as Surgeon General of United States Army for period of nine years including the Spanish War. Founder of the Army Medical School. Scientist, author and philanthropist. M. D., LL. D.
Along with Pasteur and Koch, Sternberg is credited with first bringing the fundamental principles and techniques of the new science of bacteriology within the reach of the average physician.