Feeling groggy? Blame the ship's doctor

Thu Sep 30, 2010 7:11am EDT
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By Peter Griffiths

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - In the days when Britannia ruled the waves, Royal Navy doctors revived drowning men with tobacco smoke, treated scorpion stings with rum and advised sailors to gargle with sulphuric acid to combat scurvy.

The often eccentric medical methods used at sea in the 18th and 19th centuries are exposed in hundreds of naval surgeons' notebooks released by Britain's National Archives on Thursday.

They paint a gruesome picture of life on board overcrowded ships, with sailors bitten by sharks and spiders, struck by lightning and laid low by venereal disease.

In one incident in 1802, surgeon Ben Lara, sailing the English Channel on HMS Princess Royal, was called to help a man who had fallen overboard and been under water for 12 minutes.

The sailor was stripped, wrapped in hot water bottles and "tobacco smoke was conveyed to his lungs" to revive him. After an hour, the doctor found a pulse and declared it a success.

However, a later journal says the patient fell ill again and was taken to hospital suffering from pneumonia.


Rum emerges as the cause -- and supposed cure -- for many illnesses and injuries at sea.   Continued...