Blood letting, tobacco smoke blown into the lungs, rum rubs and even the sight of Australia were some of the treatments used – with varying degrees of success – by surgeons of Britain’s Royal Navy to treat patients from the late 1700s to the late 1800s, government records released Friday show.
Britain’s National Archives has cataloged and made available to the public journals and diaries from surgeons who served on ships and in shore installations from 1793 to 1880. The archive represents “probably the most significant collection of records for the study of health and medicine at sea for the 19th century,” said Bruno Pappalardo, naval records specialist at the National Archives.
Rum was the treatment of choice aboard HMS Arab during a voyage to the West Indies in 1799 and 1800. A surgeon writes that “application of rum” to the area of a scorpion or centipede bite helps prevent paralysis. The same surgeon mixed rum with oil to treat a tarantula bite.
Aboard HMS Princess Royal in 1801, tobacco was thought to have curative properties. A man who had fallen overboard and was submerged for 12 minutes was brought back aboard the Princess Royal with the appearance of a corpse, surgeon Ben Lara wrote. The victim was dried and warmed by hot water bottles and then tobacco smoke was pumped into his lungs through a tube. After almost an hour of treatment, a pulse was detected and the man lived, according to the journal.
Aboard the convict ship Albion in 1828, surgeon Thomas Logan wrote that the spirits of the convicts when they catch first sight of their destination in New South Wales, Australia, is lifted so much that “the horde of trifling cases which were used daily to assail us has disappeared. They seem to have left off getting sick, or are become indifferent about being cured!”
Other treatments lacked such success.
One surgeon writes of treating pneumonia by draining 3.5 pints of blood from a patient in three hours and then described the patient “rapidly proceeding to a fatal termination.”
In 1825, surgeon William Burnie writes that the food on a ship carrying Irish immigrants to Canada is too rich for the extremely poor families on board, leading to the deaths of many children.
Besides spiders, scorpions and centipedes, surgeons and sailors had other creatures to deal with, according to the journals.
William Leyson writes of a walrus attacking boats from HMS Griper during a hunt in 1824, with sailors fighting off the mammal using bayonets and firing a musket into its face.
Aboard the emigrant ship Elizabeth in 1825, surgeon P. Power writes of a 12-year-old girl with symptoms including constipation, “tongue foul, pulse quick, skin hot, great thirst.” The illness manifested itself shortly thereafter when the child’s mother brought the surgeon a more than 7-foot-long worm the girl vomited. She later brought up worms of 13.5 and 7 inches, Power writes.
Click here to read a selection of the actual journals.