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.

Post by:
Filed under: Military • United Kingdom • World
soundoff (114 Responses)
  1. A. Lincoln

    Jessica, so why don't you become a doctor and work toward changing the system from within. That is the best way. In the meantime, maybe you should see your Dr. about getting your head removed from where it's at currently. By the way......who do YOU go to when your sick? Just curious.

    October 2, 2010 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Joey

    Meme i'll just say what Doc Allen was too polite to say: you're an idiot. shut up already

    October 2, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
  3. catmandu

    Meme; if you don't want to participate in modern medicine, don't. No one will make you. Feel free to read tea leaves or howl at the moon if you think that will help. I'm very grateful to modern medicine and pharmaceuticals; it's saved my life. I have spent years inside hospitals with my ill husband until he died at age 55 and with my severely disabled daughter until she died at age 7. All of their doctors were caring, dedicated and professional.
    Sure, they make a decent living; why shouldn't they? They spend thousands to become M.D.'s and pay thousands for malpractice insurance because of stupid, selfish people out for a quick dishonest buck. When my daughter's pediatric neurosurgeon operated on her 8-month old brain I wanted the best doctor available. And he saved her life for 6 more years. He was worth every penny he earned.
    I'm so sick of the "victimhood" of barking lunatics.

    October 2, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • P. Marks

      God bless you brother.
      I trust my heart to Lipitor.

      October 2, 2010 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
  4. P. Marks

    I can't believe all you people are criticizing the pharmaceutical industry. Every single one of you would be dead if it wasn't for them. They do nothing, but help us, sure they make a small profit, but it is only to feed their families. Wouldn't you all do the same? And I'm also sick and tired of hearing about natural and organic nonsense, it's a big scam. Genetically modified is the way to go, it is safe effective and the best solution. Soon we will get the opportunity to get genetically modified salmon. Science is here to help folks, take off your tin foil hats and welcome to the real world. I'll best those idiot sailors treated their children's ADD with rum too.

    October 2, 2010 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike Distance

      Thank you for having the courage to say this.
      All you get these days from the liberal media is talk about organic this and organic that. There is no evidence that it is any better for you. I for one am not fearful of pesticides, I put them on my lawn and on my garden, nobody complains. And for all of you hating on the big pharmacuetical companies you need to get some serious help, help only they could give you by the way. We are so healthy these days its not even funny.

      October 4, 2010 at 8:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Academic Philosopher

      How refreshing! I completely agree with you.

      December 16, 2012 at 3:11 am | Report abuse |
  5. M Hindin

    Meme, The "vaccines cause Autism" theory was disproved years ago. Allegedly thimerisol, a mercury derivative, that was used as a preservative in minute concentrations was blamed for autism. Unfortunately, Autism rates were not reduced when thimerisol was taken out of the vaccine. Meanwhile the rumors encourage people to avoid vaccines that reduce the incidence of disease or the terrible complications that leave death or permanent disability. Un-vaccinated individuals are often a danger to babies, the elderly or persons with compromised immune systems. Spreading misinformation can be dangerous!

    October 2, 2010 at 10:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Academic Philosopher

      Well said.

      December 16, 2012 at 3:13 am | Report abuse |
  6. fuyuko

    Actuallly, I went to an archaeological presentation which discussed the role of alcohol throughout history. And it surprised me, that alcohol was often the only medicine or treatment that people had to help them. It was used from stoneage times to make people feel better. Also tinctures could be made with alcohol and herbs, and the alcohol would preserve it. Also, beer, was used in roman ages as the yeast did help prevent illness. It also was also one of the few safe things to drink, when water was often fetid.

    October 2, 2010 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Marines123

    Phil! Your brother is like a zombi? What medication if you don't mind me asking? Phsych meds do have the drooping effect, but if its opiates for pain and methadone for tapering off opiates than theirs a little problem. Put some viagra in his medicine. His stuff will wake up! Euphoria will set in. He will be fine if he's young.

    October 3, 2010 at 3:33 am | Report abuse |
  8. Marines123

    I wonder what they did for the blue balls diagnosis?

    October 3, 2010 at 3:38 am | Report abuse |
  9. Marines123

    You nasty ass! You pooped in pants 50 times. You need a new spinkter in you ass. Diagnosis: malfunction Ass hole. Treatment; New but hole. Stay away from Anal probing objects. Back in the day, you would not survive in the Navy!

    October 3, 2010 at 3:56 am | Report abuse |
  10. jakedog

    Sounds like Obozocare to me.

    October 3, 2010 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
  11. lefty avenger

    Sounds like cheap fake cures that the republican fascists would sponsor. By blocking universal health care because they are greedy pigs this is the kind of options available to the non-rich.

    October 3, 2010 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
  12. dwighthuth

    Life was simpler? Hell back then everything was trying to kill you even the scurvy was trying to kill you.

    October 3, 2010 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
  13. Richard

    How is this any different from the quack medicine, multi-billion dollar "supplement" industry and anti-vaccine moron today? For everyone back then, there are 10x as many idiots like Jenny McCarthy today.

    October 3, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Andy Panda

    Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies. Farewell and adieu, you ladies of Spain...

    October 3, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
  15. driftdiver

    . . .and so little has changed from then to today's NHS (except back then they appear to have had doctors who were fluent in English).

    October 4, 2010 at 4:44 am | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5