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. corina

    eww thats sikk,,, pooor guys

    October 1, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • VegasRage

      Aaaah the good old days when life was simpler and people were more in touch with nature.

      October 2, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jessy

      HAHA!!! Rum on the HMS "ARAB". Sounds like an oxymoron.

      October 2, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Texan


    October 1, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  3. MannyHM

    Rum and tobacco are purported to be treatments because they can be enjoyed by the surgeon for himself. Anything goes at that time and who cares, they're convicts anyway. Of course, the convicts get better once they're in Australia !

    October 1, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • free2comment

      I'm almost certain Rum can cure many afflictions & whatsoo funny, ARABs don't partake of it? someone's been lyin' to you mister.

      October 3, 2010 at 2:00 am | Report abuse |
  4. phil

    One hundred years from now : "And the doctor prescribed mind altering drugs and proceeded to write of the patient experiencing permanant brain damage leading to death."

    October 1, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Amie

      So true, sad but true!

      October 2, 2010 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Warmfrost

      I work in the medical field, and have often said the same thing. Regardless of your feeling regarding "medical marvels"... tis all quite barbaric. Doctors then, as now, do the best with what they have... but I have heard it said before: We don't know what we don't know.

      October 2, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryan D

      @warmfrost – but at least you will say as much. So many pretend to the notion they are prescribing drugs with known mechanisms, when in act neither the workings of the drug, nor the cause of the disease are actually known (take schizophrenia, for example.) How it is that so many that have their first episode (prodromal phase) and are treated with antipsychotics based on the dopamine theory, they are for a lifetime in and out of episodes and treatment, when the group never treated, and just kept from harming themselves during the episode, have a sizable percentage never again having episodes or ever requiring treatment… It seems that we should at least be considering the idea that the cure is perpetuating the disease.

      October 2, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sokrin

      Patients claim all the time that their medicine makes them see things, makes them suicidal or makes them feel very sick. Doctors just up their dosage and say they are hallucinating those feelings from their pre-existing disease. This country sucks.

      October 2, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • catmandu

      Yikes! I would think that all you people who just read this article illustrating the limits of medical science just a few hundred years ago would want to participate in modern medicine. Without pharmaceuticals I would have died at age 39. Without modern pharmaceuticals I would be dead along with my parents, my brother, my baby grandson, my sister-in-law, my uncle and my best friend.
      If you don't care for modern medicine don't participate in it. Go ahead and divine chicken entrails or pray or protest "health care". I choose modern medicine any day.

      October 2, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • BillShut

      Remember that Star Trek film, when they traveled back into the past to get the humpback whales? #5, I think it was?

      Anyways, when they go to the hospital to rescue Chekov, and Doctor McCoy overhears a couple doctors on the elevator, talking about treating leukemia with chemo, gets all disgusted, he calls them barbarians!! lol

      October 4, 2010 at 7:31 am | Report abuse |
  5. Jam

    Wow! If only they had known about citrus fruit.

    October 1, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Laura

      Or perhaps had access to them in the middle of a months-long voyage.

      October 2, 2010 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Justin

      Wow, there's always at least one person like you who has to comment on an article and then goes and says something stupid. Did you hear mention of scurvy anywhere in that article? I sure didn't. One girl had multiple tapeworms, one guy had pneumonia and was bled to death by his doctor. Another guy got a bite and his doctor did shots with him to cure the pain.. And my favorite: the convicts who were being sent to live permanently in a prison colony are a little anxious about their incarceration only to miraculously get better when they catch sight of Australia and realize it's not such a bad place after all.

      October 2, 2010 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
    • AmericanFist

      Sure, right beneath the picture:

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

      October 2, 2010 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Willie

      "Henry Walsh Mahon journaled the effects of scurvy while he was aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa."
      It's the caption for the Photo.
      Justin, how about reading the whole article before you "say something stupid".

      October 2, 2010 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
    • mccccccccc

      Haha Justin failed.

      October 2, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Actually captains in the Royal Navy knew that lemons could prevent scurvy as early as 1601. But the dominant medical theory was still that diseases were caused by imbalances of humors (which led to bloodletting) or a poor environment. As such the medical profession convinced the Royal Navy to stop using lemons to treat scurvy. Lemon juice didn't become standard in rations until around 1793.

      October 2, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • catmandu

      Justin; can you say "derp"?

      October 2, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Justincase

      Lighten up a little Justin, LOL

      October 2, 2010 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • rum, sodomy, and some hash

      Actually they did. They were in the habit of storing limes for just that reason, hence the nickname "Limey". On the other hand, I can see where they might have dispensed of such "niceties", considering that these were convicts.

      October 2, 2010 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jay

      Epic Fail on Justin's part.

      October 3, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • adam

      Justin how about some orange juice to wash down that foot?

      October 3, 2010 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • buster hymen

      They did. Why do you think they were called "limies."

      October 4, 2010 at 12:43 am | Report abuse |
    • BillShut

      Justin might need some lemon-lime juice to wash down that crow he's eating, right after he digests the foot he crammed into his mouth!!

      I think Homer Simpson said it best, Justin: DOH!!!

      October 4, 2010 at 7:33 am | Report abuse |
  6. Mogwi

    What will we hear about in the future: the rich paying 100,000 to live a few months while the poor pay 100 to eat for a year. Today isnt about crazy cures, its about unequal healthcare. Sad...

    October 1, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • A little logic

      You just had to politicize this didn't you. It couldn't just be a story of how far modern medicine has come. You had to toss out that age old attack. Please sing a new tune.

      October 2, 2010 at 5:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Jim Bob

      Of course science is political. It has no purpose without politics, marketing & economics.

      October 2, 2010 at 8:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Jessica

      Very few doctors are in the business to heal the sick, they are in the business to make money...which requires lots of sick people for business to be good. that alone makes it political, especially when you consider that western medicine has very little to do with finding the root cause of problems, and basically only treats the symptoms. We are sick care, not health care.

      October 2, 2010 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
    • miscn

      Jessica very few doctors go into it "for the money." We rack up a quarter of a million in debt, work 80 hours a week, get treated like crap all through our training, and then get sued by the first patient who thinks they can make a buck on us – whether we did anything wrong or not. Believe me, it would not be worth the money. I agree with you that there are a lot of improvements that need to be made in our current health care situation, but most doctors go into it and stay in it because they are passionate about what they do.

      October 2, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Amy

      Miscn, if that's true, why is it that every doctor I've seen in the past 20 years has pushed me out the door as quickly as possible without even trying to solve a darn thing? I haven't met a single doctor who gave a rat's butt about me for as long as I can remember!

      October 2, 2010 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Justincase

      Wait, so the rich pay 100,000 to live for a few months, and the poor pay 100 to live for a year? Unequal treatment indeed!

      October 2, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Megan

      Gee Amy, is it possibly because people assume they're in it for the money and treat them like crap without knowing anything about their reasons? Years of that do make you a little testy. Some doctors are just terrible, but those that gripe about all doctors are only making it worse for everyone.

      October 4, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Lisa baby

    Well you never know until you try its called science

    October 1, 2010 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • tim

      bill nye the science guy, nice

      October 2, 2010 at 4:26 am | Report abuse |
  8. phil

    Lisa, science has shown theses meds cause permanant brain damage. I tried to sue one mental health service here where I live. "The medications we prescribe here are for Short term use ONLY. Any long term use may result in permanant brain damage" reads a sign in their lobby. They have been prescribing these drugs to my brother for over a decade now. He is like a walking zombie now. It is their 'disclaimer' protecting them from lawsuits. Drugawareness.org has a lot of info on these dangerous meds.

    October 1, 2010 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • rob

      Phil – don't forget how they held your brother down and forced him to take those drugs for a decade. There's a sign saying "short term use only" – why did your brother take them? There is an element of personal responsibility to long term health care that your brother seems not to have figured out...

      October 1, 2010 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Sam


    Get access to better drugs. Drugs are tested for their ability to leave your system, and for safety, as well as effectiveness. I'm sorry to hear about your brother, and hope something can be done for him.


    October 1, 2010 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jenn

      On a trip back home, I went to visit my grandmother in her nursing home. I was so saddened because all she did was complain about how much pain she was in, she didn't want to eat anything, didn't want to get out of bed, didn't know us, said she felt like she was dying – that was when she was awake the few moments of the day. I was then told by my mom that the nursing home had her on all kinds of medications. My mom moved my grandma to another home which took her off of many of the medications. I was then told that my grandma was all up and about wandering the halls, eating food, remembered everyone for the most part – just greatly improved without all those medicines. Great news for me to hear!

      I always felt that many medicines did more harm than good and that many Dr.s would just prescribe another pill to counter act the bad effects of the previous one. Seeing that happen in my grandma's situation just re-enforces that belief. Maybe, Phil, that would be an idea to get your brother a clean slate and start over, I guess depending on how bad he is. Such a shame your brother was one of the many unlucky ones who either had Dr.s in it for the money, didn't have time to actually get into his problems and wrote them off, or weren't open to other treatments. I've know a few people who have gone the alternative route and have actually surprised their traditional Dr.s with how well they are doing without medication. Wishing the best for you and your brother, Phil!

      October 2, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Report abuse |
  10. snaporaz

    Maybe they were on to something there. If I was confined to a filthy ship for a months-long, debilitating voyage, the sight of Australia (especially Byron Bay, replete with hot, nude women), would perk me up no end.

    October 1, 2010 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Marines123

    This is interesting stuff! Most drugs have adverse side effects! But many are being used for dual purposess! Viagra was a blood pressure medicine. In addition, now days you can go to the local CVS store and pick up over the counter meds for almost any basic ailment. Benadryl, sudafed,pepcid,ducolox. But as we develop cures for diseases new ones emerge and reemerge! Scurvy was cured with vit C from fruits. Goiters w sodium iodine. Unfortunatly, psych meds have zombie effects especially for non compliant patients. Now its time to secretly use and experiment with those societies that can benefit.

    October 2, 2010 at 1:33 am | Report abuse |
  12. Deepwater805

    They also thought that w(a)nking caused men to slowly go blind. Which may explain why so many sailors wore glasses....

    October 2, 2010 at 4:15 am | Report abuse |
  13. Quincy9

    I shudder to imagine what they did if someone needed a colonoscopy. Yike!

    October 2, 2010 at 6:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Quincy9

      Probably involves about 2 gallons of rum, a spyglass (steralyzed of course), a barrel or two of whale oil.... and a musket ball to bite on

      October 2, 2010 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Prince Codavince

      Just hopefully it didn't involve a gerbil...........

      October 2, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Fr. Karras

    They didn't write that the girl with the worms was given an exorcism that failed and she was thrown overboard before the demons could infect others. Catholicism: It does a body no good!

    October 2, 2010 at 6:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      Britain had become predominantly Protestant ever since the Reformation of King Henry VIII in 1534. Which makes it unlikely that there were Catholic surgeons on British vessels.

      October 2, 2010 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
    • DPres

      @ Fr. Karras: I looked up the girls case. She WAS NOT thrown overboard. She recovered and was listed a "convalescent" on June 29th, 1825.

      October 2, 2010 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
    • duck

      catholicism it does nobody good

      October 2, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Blimey you Limey!

      Fr Krass you are not a priest, you a crass wolf in sheep's clothing. Catholicism does so the mind, body, and soul good! You slanderers and libelists can use some good sacramental healing.

      October 3, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • adam

      Whats the difference between a good catholic and a good baptist?

      October 3, 2010 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • adam

      A good catholic will speak to you in the liquor store!

      October 3, 2010 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Quincy9

    You could also just cover it with tables salt as well. It would just drop off. Far less uncomfortable than using a "blunt" as you say.

    October 2, 2010 at 6:34 am | Report abuse |
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