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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Toure could leave Manchester City in the summer, claims his agent
transfers
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
News
media
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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 C++ Developer

£350 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Senior C++ Developer – L...

Part Time SEN Teacher

£120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you looking for a Part Time S...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Client Services Associate (MS Office, Analysis, Graduate)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client Services Associate (Microsoft Office, Ana...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz