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. ana

    If you pull off the Aunt Jemima mask, is there a pointy, white hat underneath? How about under that hood?

    October 2, 2010 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
  2. Doug

    In stating the obvious the ship surgeon where limited to what was on the ship to use for treatment.

    October 2, 2010 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
  3. neville

    500 years ago the smartest people on the planet thought the world was flat. 150 years ago these treaments seemed like the most educated thing to do. 100 years from now people will say "wow our grandparents did what? How barbaric"

    October 2, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Sally on Cape Cod

    Amazingly sad what happened in ignorance 100 years ago. And we will look back to this time 100 years from now in shock that we allowed the big insurance industry to decide who lived and who died for their profit. We will wonder why we let the companies' "death panels" decide who received treatment who didn't because many couldn't afford to buy health insurance from them.

    October 2, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Soon. . .


    October 2, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
  6. StateOfMaine

    Vomiting up a 7 foot long worm ? Now is that any way for a child to treat their parasitic pet's ?

    October 2, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Meme

    I do not understand, they ate all "natural" and organic, without pesticides! they did a lot of exercise every day! they did not have vaccines that causes autism and a lot more terrible diseases! what´s wrong with this world?

    October 2, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Doc Allen

    As a physician, it troubles me to hear the way elements of the general public view medicine. Im glad people have a longer life expectancy than at any point in human history, that way they can spout off non-sense for a good 70 years.

    Don't get me wrong, it a hundred years we will look back and say "what the heck were we thinking?" But for now, we do our best.
    And as for physicians only wanting to make money... That does exist, and I hope they back their Porsche into the closest fire hydrant. That being said, physicians have to make money to pay off the huge debt we get into just to be trained to become a doc. (I’m lucky, I have no debt and I thus work for much less money).

    October 2, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Joey

    must be nice not having to worry about malpractice

    October 2, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Doc Allen

    Meme... That is exactly the type of non-sense I am talking about.... you have a truly dizzing intellect.

    October 2, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Doc Allen

    Meme.. the life expectancy in the 1800s was approx 37yo (with all the organic food and no vaccines!!!!). Now it is approx 75yo. I FEEL LIKE IM TAKING CRAZY PILLS!!!!

    October 2, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  12. In Illinois

    It is sad but true, the care one gets rests on the application of the skills and experiences that a physician acquires through their respected practice. Case in point is a specific case or Schizophrenia that has been repeated numerous times. A teen or late teen is diagnosed with ADHD, later changed to bipolar and unfortunately in some cases Schizophrenia. After much treatment and failed attempts, maybe the patient (victim) is referred to an appropriate caregiver. Many mental disorders have common symptoms of physical disorders....ever hear of frontal lobe seizures? A disorder that presents the same as schizophrenia but does not respond to the of schizophrenia. It takes a very experienced and skilled clinician to clearly diagnosis mental illness. Good luck finding one, I work for one and we have changed the lives of many who are under the treatment of other "specialists"

    October 2, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Steve The Goat

    I pooped my pants again. It was a good week though, only happened 50 times.

    October 2, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Patrick Kuhn

    This is the second story I've seen on CNN today about human beings being used as lab rats–and both stories lead readers to believe it's history. Except that it's not history! Or at least not distant history. In 2003, to work aboard a gray hull ship transporting military hardware to Central Asia, Seafarers International Union members were forced to accept anthrax and small pox injections, or end their careers as sailors (Thanks in large part to Mike Sacco, a notoriously currupt union president in place to serve one two purposes: Keep wages low and sailors subservient on behalf of ship-management companies and Capital interests).

    October 2, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Dank

    Justin = FAIL!

    October 2, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
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