Lieutenant Colonel “Beau” Register, ’05: Soldier, Healer, Hero
By Scott C. Woodard, ’92, U.S. Army, Office of Medical History, Historian
This article originally appeared in The AMEDD Historian, Number 9 Spring 2015, Army Medical Department Center of History and Heritage, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and is posted with permission.
Dr. Edward Chauncey Register was a heroic figure putting others before himself and answering the call of duty to the nation and his fellow man, ultimately sacrificing his life on January 3, 1920. After graduating from The Citadel in 1905, he completed his degree in medicine from the Medical College of Virginia in 1908. Upon graduation from the Army Medical School he was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Medical Corps of the Regular Army. In his early career Register served in the Philippines, Mexico with the Punitive Expedition, and China. During WWI he performed medical reviews of soldiers prior to their deployment to Europe. In 1919 he was called to France to medically screen repatriated German prisoners.
Cadet Register, 1905 Sphinx
“Always interested in others’ welfare, even though it may be to his own hurt, and thus he was enthroned himself in the hearts of all his companions, who wish and predict for him the brightest of futures in his chosen profession of medicine.” – Excerpt from Register’s senior biography in the Sphinx, the annual of the South Carolina Corps of Cadets
By the spring of 1919, Europe was facing a crisis where 10,000 Poles died each day from typhus. An estimated 200,000 would die by June of 1920. As an initial measure to combat this threat, President Wilson ordered the Polish Typhus Relief Mission from the Army Medical Department; it would soon broaden into the American Polish Relief Expedition. The mission had a dual effect of providing humanitarian aid, by stopping the spread of the lice-born typhus, while simultaneously slowing the westward spread of communism. The regulars drew on their extensive delousing experience in France. Through review of past medical experience, they took the lessons derived from the fight against plague, yellow fever, and cholera in the Philippines and Cuba.
1LT Register (top row, center) in 1911, at Fort Sam Houston. Courtesy National Library of Medicine.
Polish healthcare providers paid a particular heavy price in their close proximity to the lice-infested victims. In one Polish hospital 88% of their doctors died while another hospital lost 83% of their doctors to the deadly contagious enemy. At the time it was well known that the Bolshevik army was deliberately expunging their ranks by transporting typhus infected soldiers to the Polish border in armored rail cars. Almost every house in Poland had one to five occupants with typhus fever.
It was in this environment that Lieutenant Colonel Register volunteered to relieve the suffering and avert possible disaster and human suffering spreading through war-torn Europe. US Army officers were appointed to work alongside officials appointed by the Polish Minister of Public Health. Initially, Register was assigned to Lwow, Poland. Top priority was cordoning off and quarantining typhus-carrying refugees coming over the eastern border. Once the refugees were quarantined, Register supervised bathing, delousing and medical care in the city of Tarnopol. It is here that Register died from typhus fever surrounded by patients lying on floors, huddled together desperately trying to stay warm within their rags for clothing. There were no linens, straw mattresses were old and unclean and “blankets” were made from paper. Out of the 12 doctors in Tarnopol, 10 had died. Fully knowing that Tarnopol was the worst typhus infested place in Poland, “Beau” Register personally answered the call “Whom shall I send?”
Polish Typhus Relief Expedition hospital at Tarnapol, Poland, where Register worked and died. Courtesy NLM.
Lieutenant Colonel Register’s commanding officer, Colonel Harry Gilchrist, remarked in his eulogy,
“It is believed that no officer in the army ever did a more courageous act. He went alone to fight a silent enemy, without the blare of trumpets the booming of cannon and the usual excitement connected with the glories of the battlefield. His was a silent battle and although losing he made a gallant fight against many odds. He died the death of a soldier, performing his work well and sacrificed his life for the people of Poland. His was a most honorable death.”
Recognized for his work, he was also honored for his answered service by a posthumous presentation of the Army Distinguished Service Medal:
“For exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services to the Government of the United States, in a duty of great responsibility during World War I, while a member of the Polish Relief Expedition, volunteering for service at Tarnopol, Poland, the entire city being prostrate from the effects of typhus fever, forty-five doctors having sacrificed their lives within the preceding two months. Upon arrival at Tarnopol Lieutenant Colonel Register assumed entire charge of the situation, organized and established a 1,500-bed hospital equipped with supplies, which had been concealed from enemy forces, and found by him. Fifteen days after his arrival in the city he contracted typhus fever and died from its effects on January 3, 1920.
Additional historical notes contributed by Bob Mebane, ’80, and Steve Smith, ’84:
Lieutenant Colonel Edward Chauncey Register’s sacrifice earned him one of only seventeen Army interwar awards of the Distinguished Service Medal (posthumous) and the Polish Cross of the Valiant, presented personally by the Polish Army Commander-In-Chief. A street on the Citadel campus is named in honor of one of the college’s most heroic alumnus’. – Source: Distinguished Citadel Alumni List
Following his death, his body was embalmed, sent to Warsaw, and then to Koblenz, Germany, to await transport back to the United States. Following repatriation of his remains, Beau Register, ’05, was interred at his final resting place of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church cemetery, Charleston, S.C.
His widow, Jeannie DuBose Heyward lies next to him. She was the sister of Edwin Dubose Heyward who is most noted for his 1925 novel “Porgy” and for the subsequent libretto of George Gershwin’s 1935 opera “Porgy and Bess”. They are descendant of Judge Thomas Heyward, Jr., signer of the Declaration of Independence. His marker reads “Lieut. Col. Edward C. Register, Med. Corps U.S. Army – Died in Poland January 3, 1920. Aged 35 Years. Greater Love Hath No Man Than This, That A Man Lay Down His Life For His Friends.”
Their daughter Jane DuBose Register married John Fishburne, a member of one of Charlestons oldest and most prominent families; namesake of Fishburne Street just south of The Citadel campus. She died in 2003 at the age of 91.
Sphinx, Citadel Academy, 1905.
Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 74, Numbers 2 and 5.
The Charlotte News, January 15, 1920.
Gilchrist, Harry L., “Information from Poland” and “Typhus Fever in Poland,” The Military Surgeon, June, 1920.
War Department, General Orders No. 9, 1923.
Foster, Gaines M., “Typhus Disaster in the Wake of War: The American-Polish Relief Expedition, 1919-1920,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 1981, Volume 55.
Cornebise, Alfred E., Typhus and Doughboys: The American Polish Typhus Relief Expedition 1919-1921, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982.
Erickson, Ralph Loren, Military Preventive Medicine: Mobilization and Deployment, Volume 1, Office of the Surgeon General, 2003.