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. quasimojo

    Did they find any journals from a Dr. S. Maturin? If they had, and should they be able to decode them, they would have learned that the alcoholic tincture of laudanum is the closest thing to a panecea in the whole pharmacopia.

    October 2, 2010 at 7:15 am | Report abuse |
    • nic weathersbee

      ahhh maturin, how i miss him....i read them too quickly, and too many times. i have to wait until i am old and grey to read them again. try alexander kent, or dudley pope.

      October 2, 2010 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
  2. phil

    Rob, my brother believed his doctors and trusted them. So he took the prescribed drugs. The adverse effects were explained away as "the body adjusting" and "it will take time for the drugs to work". Slowly his thinking ability faded away to the point where he simply does not have the capacity to reason on these matters like you and I. Just like street drug pushers the Dr's get him stronger drugs or increase doses. drugawareness.org explains this phenomal change in the way medications are pushed. No, they didn't "twist his arm" as you say. They patiently waited for him to become addicted. And then got their free euro-vacation "gift" from big pharma.

    October 2, 2010 at 7:39 am | Report abuse |
    • Eynigma

      I'm curious as to what sort of drugs you are talking about? Pain drugs? I'm a pain patient myself.

      October 2, 2010 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
  3. phil

    Sam, thank you for the kIndly post. (smile)

    October 2, 2010 at 7:57 am | Report abuse |
  4. Jim Bob

    As Winston Churchill said, the history of the navy is "rum, sodomy, and the lash".

    October 2, 2010 at 8:20 am | Report abuse |
  5. Russ, UK

    Catfish Mammy......Is that Queen's English? Is this a dialect in the USA? Sounds like something off a 70's film. Also, SAM, thank heavens for someone with compassion......To Rob, the modern independent efficient human being.....Phil's brother, bless him, is under doctors orders, these people are in the position of responsibility and trust. It is their knowledge and professional responsibility to guide us to a better health solution and care for us. We are unwittingly gullible to them, as we are trained to trust them from a young age. It would appear to be less of a vocation these days for a minority unfortunately, and more of a money making career with the drugs companies for a few but generally, I am happy in the knowledge that those left are not sticking a leech on me!!!

    October 2, 2010 at 8:51 am | Report abuse |
  6. whoopingcough

    Years ago the doctors did not drink during surgery, now they do. Rum for the doctor, worms and weed for the patient, that works every time.

    October 2, 2010 at 9:13 am | Report abuse |
  7. django

    ..makes me wonder what imaginable horrors the Slaves mustve gone through in the Middle Passage...

    October 2, 2010 at 9:53 am | Report abuse |
  8. old science still works

    I have an in-law in mexico that is a licensed doctor. He is also a mayan indian. he came to vist here for a week and did somethings with natural ingrediants that was amazing. I cut my hand gardening and was washing off the cut, looking or bandages and he took a look and took me into the yards and found some spider webs and put them on the cut. Almost instantly the bleeding stopped. Then my dad was talking to him about a mole on his back the size of a quarter. Doctor mayan asked me for some new single edged razor blades and rubbing alcohol and HONEY. Well he cut the moles off my dads back ,coated them in honey and gaze. He left 2 days later and my dad asked me to removes the gaze tape so he coudl shower. When I did, i except some massive scabs and when I looked, it was nothing more than slight discoloration and no scab,no blood and scarring.

    Im sure they was other cures he had besides that plus being a doctor using modern medicine.

    October 2, 2010 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      It's amazing how effective traditional medicine is. Even bloodletting was shown to be very effective against inflammation and a number of different conditions, including pneumonia (to a limited degree). It would be nice to see some of these remedies used more often, but any doctor that tried them would get sued for all he's worth.

      October 2, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  9. iShane

    Maybe Obama will call somebody and apologize....

    October 2, 2010 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
  10. Sagebrush Shorty

    What's new? You can still find weird and exotic cures being peddled in just about any magazine today.

    October 2, 2010 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
  11. Phil from Corpus Christi

    When you think about it, many people at that time no doubt believed science knew all that could be known about medicine–the same as we do today. And we will advance in medicine the same as they did. I wonder where medicine will be in 200 years? Will it look like that on Star Trek?

    October 2, 2010 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
  12. Help Here

    Hey Guys, will you visit SaveStan.ORG a friend of mine with 4 young babies is fighting for his life.....Thanks

    October 2, 2010 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
  13. JEM

    Medical technology was set back many centuries by the fall of the Roman Empire and will likely be set back a few centuries by the fall of our civilization.
    This is why monetary policy is so important. People live and die on those economic charts

    October 2, 2010 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
  14. phil

    Odd that the hand-held surgical instruments used today look exactly like those used by ancient Greek surgeons.

    October 2, 2010 at 11:02 am | Report abuse |
  15. czrifleman

    I thought it was Rum, Sodomy and the Lash...

    October 2, 2010 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Amy

      Don't knock it till u tried it!

      October 3, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
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