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Friday, June 8, 2012

Medicine at Sea -- Not for the Squeamish!

The more I learn about doctoring on board a ship, the more I’m thankful I live in this day and age!  Much more than life on land, shipboard life was wrought with many dangers and diseases. And if the ship was a man-of-war or a pirate or privateer, they also had to endure battle from time to time.  Injuries ranged from gunshots, punctures, slashes, dismemberment, to scorching burns from cannons.

Aside from battle, a wooden ship was a floating bucket of germs and disease. Rats, cockroaches, weevils, lice, and lifestock infected every corner. Sailor's clothing was often damp, making it more likely to harbor disease. Sunburn, heat exhaustion, sun stroke, hypothermia, exposure, and frostbite were just a few of the normal problems each sailor faced.

Diseases such as typhus, cholera, yellow fever, or bubonic plague had a nasty habit of invading ships where large numbers of people were gathered together in confined places  Scurvy killed more sailors than any other disease, natural disasters, and fights combined. Historians conservatively place the number of deaths at more than 2,000,000 between Columbus’ first voyage to the New World and the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1596 William Clowes, an English surgeon at sea, described how his men suffered from scurvy:
Their gums were rotten even to the very roots of their teeth, and their cheeks hard and swollen, the teeth were loose neere ready to fallout…their breath a filthy savour. The legs were feeble and so weak, that they were not scarce able to carrie their bodies. Moreover they were full of aches and paines, with many bluish and reddish staines or spots, some broad and some small like flea-biting. (Brown, 34)

Aside from battle, most injuries occurred from simple accidents. Scurrying up and down the rigging as the ship swayed back and forth often caused sailors to lose their footing and fall, resulting at best with a fractured skull, at worst death. Falling or snapping rigging, shifting yards, and accidents with knives and other tools also caused severe injuries.

Then, of course, an actual battle normally flooded sick bay with wounded men. The worse of them needed the dreaded, amputation

The process involved cutting off the injured man’s clothing and applying a tourniquet. The surgeon then gave him a stick to bite down on.  Anesthetics had yet to be invented and contrary to belief, they weren’t given alcohol either. Only after the surgery were opiates or grog given for the discomfort.  Without going into details, the limb was sawed off and tossed in a bucket. Either hot tar was applied to the stump or it was cauterized with a hot iron to stop the bleeding. The tourniquet was removed and strips of linen lashed over the stump. If a wool stocking cap was available, this was also pulled over the stump. The entire operation took eight to ten minutes. The man’s chances of survival? Fifty-fifty.

A seaman aboard HMS Macedonian assisted during an operation.
We held [one man] while the surgeon cut off his leg above the knee. The task was most painful to behold, the surgeon using his knife and saw on human flesh and bones as freely as the butcher at the shambles.”

The Medicine Chest
Every ship at sea was in dire need of a medicine chest. In fact, the medicine chest was considered more valuable than a doctor. If a doctor was not on aboard, the captain simply designated someone to tend to the patients, but the medicine chest they could not do without!

John Woodall’s The Surgeons Mate, first published in 1617 was a shipboard manual that listed instruments and medicines found in the chest as well as special instructions for emergencies and ailments.  There were 281 remedies listed, which consisted of popular herbs of the day, rosemary, mint, clover, sage, thyme, angelica, comfrey, blessed thistle, juniper, hollyhock, absinthe and pyrethrum.

Here’s a list of tools and supplies normally found in medicine chest
Cauterizing irons
Spatulas for drawing out splinters and shot
Grippers for extracting teeth
Stitching quill and needles
Clouts (soft rags)
Cupping glasses,
Blood porringers
Chafing dishes
Mortar and pestle
Weights and scales

These medicine chests were so valuable and sought after by ships that Blackbeard himself blockaded the port of Charleston just to get one in exchange for prisoners. The going rate for a medicine chest of the day was  between 300-400 pounds!

Remedies or medicines had to be concocted on the spot. Normally the medication consisted of a curative agent, water or oil, flavoring, if swallowed, and a compound used to deliver the medicine (like a pill or ointment).

Here’s a list of ailments and their remedies. I think you’ll find some of them most amusing!

  • Vomiting, hiccups, stomach ache --- cinnamon water ,licorice juice, peppermint water 
  •  Urinary problems, fevers – spirits, salts and tinctures like salts of wormwood, vinegar and quicksilver
  • To close up a wound, or as a varnish on a violin – Dragon’s blood, the resin made from the agave and rattan palm
  •  Malaria – quinine bark
  •  Headache – Chamomile flowers
  •   Mucus – syrup from vinegar of squills with sugar and honey
  •  Skin wounds – oil of St. John’s Wort
  •  Fear of water, bites from serpents, mad dogs, and creeping things – Methridatum – an opiate
  •  Syphilis – apply poultice made of frogs, “earthworms, viper’s flesh, human fat, wine, grass from northern India, lavender from France, chamomile from Italy, white lead and quicksilver”
  •  And my personal favorite! Wounds from battle – apply poultice made of “burnt earthworms, dried boar’s brain, pulverized Egyptian mummy, crushed rubies, bear’s fat, and moss from the skull of hanged man which had been collected from the gibbet at moonrise with Venus ascending.”
And get this, the plaster was not applied to the wound but to the sword that sliced him!.


  1. What a wonderful compendium of research. Thank you!

  2. Wow, Marylu!
    If sailors had all of that information, recruitment might go down. Sadly, some had no choice. Good work!

  3. MaryLu, We just had the Blackbeard Festival in Hampton Roads, VA. This really explains why Blackbeard blockaded Charleston, as you mentioned, for medical supplies--one of my son's favorite pirate trivia facts!

  4. I certianly makes me thankful to love in the modern times! Very thankful, indeed. How did anyone survive with medical treatment like that?
    Thank you for this post! Very fascinating.

  5. Thank you, Ladies! When I researched this, it truly made me squirm. The things they used to do to these poor sailors! Yes, Indeed, recruitment would have definitely dropped with just one peek at the instruments used!! Carrie, I'm so jealous of your Blackbeard Festival. It truly is amazing that such a fierce, greedy pirate would blockade an entire city for medical supplies! I have a post on that event on my blog, http://crossandcutlass.blogspot.com/ if you're interested!

  6. Amazing information, MaryLu. This is a keeper for me as my WIP takes place at sea. I'm reminded each day why I'm so thankful to be a member of this group of writers.

    I can't imagine being on board a ship and having "a fear of creepy things." Seems like that is all that was on these ships -- "creepy things"!

  7. Interesting and horrible! I'm glad I live in the 21st century! Great reseach MaryLu!

  8. MaryLu, the nurse in me loved this. I always snicker just a bit when these guys you authors write about grab the ladies who end up on their ship and kiss them, especially when they "deepen the kiss". LOL Ah, the wonder of fiction!! :-)

  9. oh yes... lots of creepy things on ships.. my personal favorite, cockroaches! I have a terrible fear of them. It does make you glad we live in the century we do, but they were also thankful for their medical "advances" thinking they were on the cutting edge (no pun intended)
    And yes.. kissing a man who hadn't seen a dentist in his entire life. Or who probably hadn't had a bath in months. How very romantic! But we fiction writers don't like to think about such things. ;-)

    1. Don't think they would have cared since they didn't know any different.

  10. Eye of newt and toe of frog... yeah. Glad we don't have to mix these things up anymore. :)

  11. Oh my. That was so bad I had to cringe and look away. I would not have wanted to be aboard ship back then. Actually, I wouldn't want to now. There are still so many stories of sickness sweeping through those big cruise liners.

    Very informative, even if I had to close my eyes for the amputation part!

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