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Medical Notes on board of the 18th century ships

By Miguel Figueredo


Once upon a time the doctors in the English Royal Navy used rum to treat scorpion stings and tobacco smoke to revive drowning men, or told sailors to gargle with sulphuric acid if they were suffering from scurvy. Some odd and -today- gruesome methods were used as medicine and cures in the 18th century, as recorded in many naval surgeons’ notebooks from the time.

Sailors bitten by sharks and spiders, struck by lightning and laid low by venereal disease drew a sort of life on board overcrowded ships that are far from what we think of today when talking about going on a Cruise inthe Caribbean.

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. Well, he fell ill again later and was taken to hospital suffering from pneumonia.

Rum was often mentioned as both the cause AND 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”.

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


A drawing taken from journals written by Royal Navy surgeons between 1793 and 1880. (National Archives)


These and other shocking reports can be found in the Britain’s National Archives in London, containing handwritten notes by naval surgeons, dating from 1793 to 1880.


‘The views expressed above are the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of WIRSPA Inc.’   

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