7ft worms, hermaphrodite sailors and resurrection by tobacco revealed in archive
Published 30/09/2010 | 10:28
Worms seven feet in length, the first documented case of a hermaphrodite and the tale of a sailor who was saved from death by tobaccco smoke have emerged in a catalogue of bizarre Naval doctors' records disclosed by Britain's National Archive.
In the calm lines of the notebooks' closely spaced copperplate are records of lightning strikes, gun fights and mutinous crews.
There are courts martial, shipwrecks and even murder during the long ocean journeys undertaken by the doctors' ships between 1793 and 1880.
The patients were the ratings, officers, emigrants and convicts being taken - often permanently - to other parts of the Empire and the records of their treatment provide a detailed glimpse into the past.
More than 1,000 Royal Navy Medical Officer Journals have been made accessible to the public following a two-year cataloguing project at the National Archives in Kew.
One passenger was 12-year-old Ellen McCarthy, who was on board the Elizabeth sailing from Cork, Ireland, to Quebec, Canada, in June 1825 when she fell ill and coughed up three intestinal worms which her mother took to the ship's surgeon.
The doctor, identified only as one P Power, wrote: "Complained yesterday evening of pain in the bottom of the belly increased on pressure, abdomen hard and swollen, picks her nose, starts in her sleep, bowels constipated, pyrexia [fever], tongue foul, pulse quick, skin hot, great thirst.
"Her mother brought me a lumbricus [worm] this morning 87 inches long which the patient vomited. The medicine operated well."
The naval surgeon treated the girl with a range of syrups and injections including barley water, calomel [mercury chloride - a laxative now known to be toxic], jalap [a tuber with laxative effects] and brandy punch to ease the symptoms and restore her digestive system to normality."
However, he said the most effective treatment was "oil of terebouth" - or turpentine.
Cures were required for scorpion, tarantula and shark bites, scurvy and many different forms of sexually transmitted diseases, while some of the doctors collected poisonous sea snakes for further study.
Other incidents recorded include offerings of disinterred skulls to Inuits, the 55-year-old sail maker who served in the Navy at Trafalgar and the Army at Waterloo, and the second mate who was lost overboard with the ship's keys in his hand.
Another surgeon was asked to observe Samuel Tapper, an 18-year-old sailor in 1802, and noted: “Tapper’s breasts so perfectly resemble those of a young woman of 18 or 19 that even the male genitals which are also perfect, do not fully remove the imporession that the spectateor is not lookin on a female.”
He was returned to active duty while in January 1802 one James Calloway, a seaman aged 40, fell overboard and was only revived when tobacco smoke was blown into his lungs.
The remedies prescribed seem harsh to modern eyes but the doctors of the time were often pioneering treatments which would later be refined, according to Dan Gilfoyle, the National Archives' diplomatic and colonial records specialist.
Bruno Pappalardo, the project manager, said: "The journals are the most significant source for the study of the history of health at sea for the 19th century."