Friday 19 January 2018

Rum the answer for perils at sea

A drawing from journals written by Royal Navy surgeons between 1793 and 1880
A drawing from journals written by Royal Navy surgeons between 1793 and 1880

Seven-foot worms in the stomach, tarantula bites and lightning strikes made life at sea a dangerous activity in the 19th century, medical archives have revealed.

Tropical fevers and sexually transmitted diseases also afflicted those on board naval vessels, passenger ships and convict transport, according to journals written by Royal Navy surgeons between 1793 and 1880.

As well as daily "sick lists" their meticulous handwritten notes and illustrations included in more than 1,000 newly-catalogued files held at the National Archives bring to life the experiences of travelling all over the world from Britain and Ireland.

One describes an encounter with Eskimos during a voyage of discovery on His Majesty's Griper in the Arctic in 1824 when the assistant surgeon William Leyson recounted how presents were left for the Inuits. In exchange, the Britons took "several walrus heads" and a woman's head from a grave, he wrote.

Convicts on board the Albion heading to Australia in 1828 showed an "animated eagerness" when they saw their future country, according to surgeon Thomas Logan, while on the Eliza a group of prisoners performed the play Rob Roy to entertain the officers. The locks on the same ship later had to be picked after the ship's second mate fell overboard and was lost at the sea with the keys in his hand, the logs reveal.

Alcohol is a recurring theme of the journals, both for sparking drunken accidents and fighting as well as its use as a treatment. Rum was often administered for all sorts of problems including scorpion and tarantula bites, while brandy also played a part as a medicine.

Treatment options appear to have been limited but the surgeons tried to take care of their patients and expressed pleasure when they showed signs of recovery.

According to Dan Gilfoyle, diplomatic and colonial records specialist, the documents give an insight into approaches to medicine and healthcare from those at the "front line" of the medical profession. He said the 19th century was a period when many aspects of medicine changed "radically" as developments were made in the causation of disease from previous theories of climatic causes to understanding of germs. The rapid expansion of the British empire also brought travellers into contact with new and varied diseases.

The Royal Navy Medical Officer Journals have been catalogued by the National Archives as part of a two-year project funded by a £96,000 grant from the Wellcome Trust.

Project manager Bruno Pappalardo, principal record specialist manager (military, maritime and transport), said the documents were "full of stories" and "humanity" which shone through. By cataloguing the files, historians and people researching family history or other subjects can search the files much more easily, he added. "The journals are the most significant source for the study of the history of health at sea for the 19th century," he said.

Press Association

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