October 1st, 2010
01:38 PM ET

Life of a Navy surgeon: Rum, worms and tobacco cures

Henry Walsh Mahon journaled the effects of scurvy while he was aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa.

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.

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Filed under: Military • United Kingdom • World
soundoff (114 Responses)
  1. BillRubin

    Did anyone actually take a look at the journal? The one thing in medicine that has worsened in the past 200 some years is penmanship. The writing is quite exsquisite.

    October 4, 2010 at 7:43 am | Report abuse |
  2. Philly

    The truth of the matter, is that no one person alone can change the healthcare industry, no more than 1 person can change wall street alone. Yes people go into medicine to help others. I believe that. But I also believe that they soon realise that they are banging their head against a brick wall of they try to go against the grain. It's more than well know that the pharm companies are in it for profit. Of course they make some medicines to help people. They have to, that's the type of business thay run. The FDA wouldn't allow them to label their product any other way.

    But all of you ask yourselves this question, name me "1" pharm drug advertised on tv, radio, magazine, or wherever in the last 30 years that stated that it "cured" your problem. Every last one states that it "treats" the problem. Look for yourself. In fact, it's not even required by med students to even take a homeopathetic class. But it is required for all med students to take at least 1 year of working in the pharmacy in the hospital, so that they'll be aware of how all of the drugs function.

    Do doctors care, yes I believe they do. But I also don't believe they are GOD like some of you, and some of them believe. All the medicine can't save a person if it's their time to go. And even as advanced as we have become as a medical society, we still can't cure the common cold. But it seems like our society has put doctors on this plateau that they know everything, are never wrong, shouldn't be questioned, and can't be touched. So people will believe anything a doctor says today.

    October 4, 2010 at 9:00 am | Report abuse |
  3. Shannon


    Just read C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels or the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian and you'll hear some really great anecdotal evidence of these practices. Yes, they are in the form of fiction, but they are supported by real research into ship's logs and letters home (for those sailors who could write, anyway).

    October 4, 2010 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
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