Revealed: colourful life of a Navy surgeon in the 1800s

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Colourful journals detail rampant drunkenness, an 87-inch tapeworm and the first hermaphroditic sailor

On 17 April 1813, John McLean, a sailor on board the Royal Navy flag ship died after spending ten days drinking gin and rum. The alcohol-fuelled death, drove a despairing William Warner, the ship’s surgeon, to observe in his notes: “Drunkenness nowadays in the Navy kills more men than the sword.”

The extent to which Britannia ruled the waves with warships crewed by sozzled seamen, along with accounts of the extraordinary range of ailments treated by naval medical officers as Britain set about building its empire, are revealed today in an archive of handwritten doctors’ journals which has lain largely unread for decades.

From treating a 12-year-old girl who vomited an 87-inch worm to one surgeon’s meticulous examination of the Royal Navy’s first hermaphrodite sailor, the cataloguing by the National Archives of more than 1,000 treatment diaries kept by ship’s surgeons reveals a new and often grisly side to the nature of life at sea between 1793 and 1880.

A two-year project funded by the Wellcome Trust at a cost of about £100,000 has produced the first detailed account of the contents of the documents, including the names of the patients and their complaints. Hitherto, the papers had been difficult to examine, not least because the handwriting of doctors in the 18th and 19th centuries was no less impenetrable than that of their modern successors.

The journals show how many medical officers embraced the spirit of scientific discovery of their age, cataloguing wildlife and drawing native tribesmen when not going about their official duties treating disease and illness with an arsenal of often antediluvian medications that relied heavily on alcohol (the favoured cure for a tarantula bite was to pour rum on the wound) and heavy metals (the sailor poisoned by a “mangereen apple” in Barbados was made to swallow a purgative made from mercury).

Some of the journals were painstakingly illustrated by medical officers who drew coloured pictures of some of the more exotic conditions they encountered along with images of the microbes they found under their microscopes and maps of the far-flung places they visited.

Bruno Pappalardo, naval records specialist at the National Archives in Kew, west London, said: “These were learned, educated men with a scientific background who were going around the world with a determination to record the things they saw, the patients they treated and be interested in the world around them. It may have been an at time harsh environment but their compassion shines through – they did their utmost to care for people. As such, their journals are probably the most significant collection of records for the study of health and medicine at sea for the 19th century.”

The files, which also include the records of ship’s surgeons on board vessels transporting convicts to Australia, provide a candid glimpse of the perilous nature of maritime life.

Daniel McNamara, the medical officer on board a convict ship in 1821, relates how a mutiny was averted only after a majority of the prisoners refused to take part in the insurrection planned by their guards. Elsewhere, there are accounts of an attack by a walrus on a hunting boat and how three sailors were killed by a lightning strike which “issued a most sulphureous [sic] stench accompanied with three sharp cracks”.

But the ocean-bound doctors frequently returned to the subject of the perils of drink on board vessels, lamenting the inebriated state of many of their patients. Thomas Simpson, sailing on board HMS Arethusa in 1805, highlighted the case of John Downie, a 26-year-old Royal Marine of “ghastly wretched appearance” who performed animal impressions in return for grog or rum from his shipmates.

Mr Simpson wrote: “He can imitate with the greatest possible exactness the howling of a pack of hounds, the crowing of a cock, the bellowing of a bull, cow or calf and a number of other animals. On account of these curious qualifications he is often solicited by his shipmates to give a specimen of talents and a glass of grog is of course his reward. I presume he has been drunk in consequence of something of this kind and has affected sickness to avoid punishment. He says his head aches.”

The files bear testimony to the inventiveness of naval surgeons when faced with seemingly irretrievable situations. When a sailor fell overboard from the HMS Princess Royal in 1802 and spent nine minutes under the water, the vessel’s surgeon decided to attempt to revive the apparently lifeless corpse by blowing tobacco smoke into the lung of the stricken seaman. After ten minutes of administering the ad hoc treatment, the patient coughed, sighed and was soon well enough to walk around the sick bay.

Other treatments proved less productive. In another case, a surgeon submitted another patient to a brandy enema before injecting him with strychnine, which was used at the time in small doses as a stimulant. Sadly neither had a noticeable effect and the patient was declared dead.

Researchers believe the new detailed catalogue of the medical journals, which provides the names of hundreds of convicts treated by doctors as well as the conditions and diseases that were treated, will prove valuable to family history researchers as well as medical historians.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksJK Rowling to publish new story set in wizard's world for Halloween
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
i100
Life and Style
tech

Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Software Engineer - C#, VB.Net, ASP.Net - Kingston, Sur

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior Software Engineer - C#, VB.N...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: The Job:SECONDARY teachers need...

Behaviour Support Work

£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Behaviour Support WorkerThe JobTo...

English Teacher, Aylesford School

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad Education is working in...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker