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Passing of Rear Adm. William M. Narva, MC, USN (Ret.)

By: Samuel J. Cox Rear Adm., USN (retired) Director of Naval History, Curator for the Navy Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Rear Admiral William Milton “Bill” Narva, Medical Corps, U.S. Navy (Retired) on July 28, 2020 at age 92. Bill joined the U.S. Naval Reserve while in Yale University Medical School in 1952 and served as a Medical Corps Officer with a specialty in Dermatology until his retirement in 1990 as the Attending Physician to Congress. During his career he treated five U.S. Presidents from Lyndon Johnson to George H.W. Bush, but perhaps even more noteworthy, he treated numerous U.S. Marine and Navy casualties from the Vietnam War.

Rear Admiral William M. Narva

Bill dropped out of high school to join the Maritime Service at the end of World War II (which accounts for the American Campaign and World War II Victory Medals on his uniform). He returned to finish high school and attended Hofstra College in New York, with a desire to become a doctor but finished dead last on the chemistry exam. Undeterred, he not only talked his way into the chemistry program, but he was accepted at the prestigious Yale Medical School (apparently a first for a Hofstra graduate). He was accepted at Yale and NYU Medical School and when Bill asked for advice, his advisor said to flip a coin – and if the coin stands on its side, go to NYU.  Bill received a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve on March 7, 1952 while attending Yale. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1954 and reported for active duty in October 1955 while still at Yale, where he graduated in June 1956.

In June 1956, Lt.j.g. Narva reported to the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Md. for additional instruction and residency training. He was promoted to lieutenant in September 1956 and augmented into the U.S. Navy from the Naval Reserve in May 1957. He continued with residency in July 1957 at the Naval Hospital, San Diego in dermatology and infectious diseases. He continued additional training at Los Angeles County General Hospital, administratively assigned to the UCLA NROTC unit. In August 1960, he reported to the Naval Hospital, Oakland, Calif. providing dermatology service, where he was promoted to lieutenant commander in July 1962.

In April 1964, Lt. Cmdr. Narva was assigned to the Naval Hospital, San Diego, Dermatology Service. In September 1965 he received orders to National Naval Medical Center Bethesda, Dermatology Service with additional duty as Chief of Naval Operations Staff Physician. Within his first weeks after arrival, he treated President Lyndon Johnson. He also deployed to Vietnam at some point (I can’t find the dates). During this long tour at Bethesda, he was promoted to commander in October 1966 and to captain in July 1970. 

In September 1973, Captain Narva became Chief of the Dermatology Department at Bethesda with additional duty as CNO Staff Physician and Special Assignment for the Surgeon General. In September 1978, Capt. Narva assumed duty in the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) as Director, Naval Reserve Division and additional duty in the Office of the CNO as Special Assistant for Naval Reserve Medicine Problems. In February 1979, he continued in the Office of the CNO as Director, Professional Division in the Office of the Surgeon General of the Navy (OP93) with additional duty at BUMED as Special Assistant for Naval Reserve to the Assistant Chief for Professional Development.

Promoted to rear admiral on February 10, 1982, Rear Adm. Narva assumed duty as the Vice President, Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, Bethesda. During this period he treated both President and Mrs. Reagan for skin cancer conditions (the bandage was on President Reagan’s nose when he announced the capture of the ACHILLE LAURO hijacker/terrorists and the President quipped that it was “a billboard for staying out of the sun.”) Rear Adm. Narva was instrumental in working with President Reagan in the creation of National Skin Cancer Prevention and Detection Week.  

In 1986, Rear Adm. Narva was nominated and selected to be the Attending Physician to Congress, which also included Supreme Court Justices, other senior government officials, and continued work with Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Rear Adm. Narva retired on October 1, 1990. 

Rear Admiral Narva’s awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal (2), Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze stars, and the Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (Civil Action).

Following retirement from active duty, Bill Marva served as a consultant and lecturer at several prominent institutions including Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital. He was also an advisor to entertainer Merv Griffin (Bill’s wife Rose managed Griffin’s resort properties, and had previously managed the Haight Ashbury and Jefferson Hotels in Washington, D.C.). Bill was a Fellow in the American Academy of Dermatology, American College of Physicians, a member of the American Dermatological Association, the Association of Military Dermatologists, and the Washington Dermatological Society.

In the event you don’t think dermatology is important, recall that Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, Jr. missed the Battle of Midway due to a serious skin condition (not shingles as in many accounts, but with much the same effect). It is also a major medical discipline in the treatment of combat wounds, to the benefit of countless Marines and Sailors. In the course of his career, Bill Narva treated Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, members of Congress, senior government and military leaders, Sailors, Marines and family members, every last one of whom received the best possible medical care. He was known as a doctor who listened to his patients before jumping to conclusions, with a disarming sense of humor. When a senior senator asked him what king of doctor he was, Bill responded “a witch doctor,” which befuddled the senator and Bill elaborated, “you tell me what the problem is, and I’ll tell you which doctor to go see.” A reporter once asked why a Dermatologist was Attending Physician to Congress and Bill replied that it was due to politicians having “thin skins.” Nevertheless, Bill had the utmost respect for those he served, senior government officials all the way to enlisted Sailors, and he earned their respect as well. In a Facebook post, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute stated, “more than Ronald Reagan’s doctor, he was a dear friend to both President and Mrs. Reagan. We are heartbroken to hear of his passing.” That sentiment sums up that of everyone who knew him. He was an extraordinary doctor and naval officer who brought great credit to the United States Navy and served our nation with distinction. 

Rest in Peace Admiral Narva.