September 30, 2010 / 11:16 AM / 8 years ago

Feeling groggy? Blame the ship's doctor

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.

One surgeon noted that “drunkenness nowadays in the navy kills more men than the sword” and that with most problems “you may trace grog as the principal cause.”

A journal from a doctor on board HMS Arab in 1799-1800, making its way from Europe to the West Indies, records a lightning strike that killed three sailors.

“Our main top mast was splintered to pieces, every man on deck knocked down, many of whom cried out their leg or arm were broke from the violence of the shock,” he wrote. “The most astonishing of all was that a man who was up at the main top gallant mast head remained untouched.”

On the same voyage, a scorpion sting nearly paralyzed a sailor. He was revived by “application of rum to the part.” Another man bitten by a tarantula received some “rum and oil.”

Others were told to gargle with diluted sulphuric acid, or elixir of vitriol, in a vain attempt to beat scurvy.

One shocking entry tells of a young girl afflicted by worms on a ship carrying Irish emigrants to Quebec in 1825.

Surgeon P Power, on board the Elizabeth, said 12-year-old Ellen McCarthy had complained of stomach pain and had a “tongue foul, pulse quick, skin hot, great thirst.”

Her mother later brought the doctor a worm a full 87 inches long, which the child had vomited.

Bruno Pappalardo, naval records specialist at the National Archives in London, said the handwritten notes, dating from 1793 to 1880, were an important source of medical history.

“The journals are probably the most significant collection of records for the study of health and medicine at sea for the 19th century,” he said.

Editing by Steve Addison

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