SHIPS SURGEON, DOCTOR & APOTHECARY
In the early 18th Century, the definitive book on surgery aboard ship was The Surgions Mate ; this had been written by John Woodall, who in the preceding century had served for thirty years as Surgeon-General to the East India Company responsible for appointing ‘able and fit’ surgeons and surgeons-mates and the fitting-out of medical chests with medicines, instruments and ‘appurtenances thereto’. Each East-Indiaman had a copy of this book on board and thereby each of their vessels had the best record of providing medical facilities. The book was the first medical textbook written catering for surgeons at sea ; a comprehensive listing of all forms of disease and likely wounds, with descriptions of treatments including amputation. Woodall also included a full list of what a ships medical chest must contain and chemical descriptions of how to prepare and mix pills, potions and lotions.
It seems the most common ailment amongst seamen was constipation, brought on by the usual diet of salted food and treated by administering an enema using a syringe ; another common ailment were skin boils through spending long periods wearing clothes damp through sweat or seawater, especially in a hot climate.
Rather than any formal qualifications as a ships’ doctor or surgeon, the skills required were mostly gained through wide experience and knowledge gained on previous voyages and in possessing a well-stocked medical kit to treat everything from gunshot wounds, splinters through up by a cannonball strike to several forms of venereal disease or parasites such as skin and intestinal worms and of course, all sorts of tropical fevers any of which could devastate a crew. A speedy treatment aboard ship by a skilled surgeon saved the life of many a sick or wounded pirate but not all ships had a doctor on board, hence the surgeon being considered along with a experienced captain and navigator a valued commodity by any crew and these men were ‘pressed’ or ‘forced’ whenever found aboard a prize. Surgeons aboard a pirate ship often worked aboard to a set wage and sometimes also got a share in any plunder ; pirate ‘articles’ included set rates for lost limbs or eyes which were awarded to any crewman unfortunate to suffer from this from any plunder before the balance was then distributed on an ‘equal shares’ basis.
It was not unknown for ships to carry live animals such as chickens, goats and sheep to provide a source of fresh meat - as long as the fodder lasted - but fruit, vegetables, soft cheese and other such perishable stores aboard ship would obviously rot and turn bad in the course of time and become useless unless eaten before then. Symptoms of scurvy appeared aboard a ship after around twelve weeks at sea - sometimes earlier on return passages - and began with dizziness, initial listlessness leading to a total loss of energy, a swelling and slow decolourization of the limbs (including turning black), bleeding gums and hair, fingernails and even teeth becoming loose and falling out. Just 10 milligrams of Vitamin C each day is enough to combat the disease, but a chronic affliction was fatal if not cured and not all crewmen recovered once reaching land and being fed on fresh food. Although this ailment was well known amongst seamen, the direct cause of it wasn’t known by the early 18th Century. Captains noticed that as an alternative to salted stores, fresh food and water ‘cured’ the sufferers and some masters tried to carry fresh fruits and vegetables aboard ship when possible. However, these weren’t appreciated by all crews : after the mid-18th Century Captain James Cook tried sauerkraut to alleviate scurvy on his long ‘voyages of discovery’ but his crew almost mutinied when he insisted they eat it. Later long-term voyages by the Royal Navy included a stock of limes aboard ship for crews to eat or drink the juice of, which as every schoolboy knows gave the nickname ‘Limeys’ given to British seamen by American sailors. Native trees and bushes bearing fruit were often cut down by crews ashore to make gathering easier but this obviously inhibited or even destroyed future growth. Privateer and pirate crews had previously landed on island bases such as Juan Fernandes to plant seeds for specific ‘antiscorbutics’ in the form of vegetables and other greenstuffs in small laid-out gardens or plots for collection by them or other vessels later ; gardens which patrolling or pursuing Spanish ships destroyed whenever they found to limit the availability of fresh food to ‘invaders’. Pirates in raiding villages ashore often told off part of the crew from the general search for plunder to find and carry off all available food and drink, a habit that led to any Europeans being decidedly unwelcomed by natives who would quickly hide everything of any value upon spotting a ship and drive their animals inshore ; a fact which could be hazardous for any captain hoping to re-victual his ship at that spot.
The different wounds a pirate surgeon might be called upon to deal with are many and varied, from the simple extraction of splinters, burns, skin grazes and dislocated or broken limbs from shipboard falls, to more serious wounds inflicted in a fight. ‘Probing for a bullet’ involved just that, the surgeon using a thin probe to find the bullet and inserting forceps to grasp and remove it. Damage to the internal organs could see a pirate placed to one side to see if he lived or died. Stitching up a cut or a laceration would see the skills of a tailor employed if there was no surgeon aboard. In the days before any anaesthetic beyond opium - or its derivative, laudanum - a common seaman could be given a mug of rum to drink before the operation to dull the senses. Any deep laceration or battle-damage to any joint would mean immediate amputation, with the carpenters axe - heated red-hot in the galley then applied to cauterise the stump. Transfusions were not yet known, but it was not unknown for a wounded or a sick man to be ‘bled’ from a vein of several ounces of blood to alleviate a fever or to deal with shock.
Though largely an unsung hero, a ‘world-wise’ surgeon having a finely honed set of instruments and a well-stocked medicine chest aboard a pirate ship was a very valuable resource.
All text © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore. Photos to bee added later