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The Ladies Medicine Chest
Naval Medicine in 1812 pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

Naval Medicine in 1812 - page 1 of 7
by Robert Mayer


Writing in the middle of the eighteenth century, the English physician James Lind warned of the dangers of leaving one's native environment:

Men who thus exchange their native for a distant climate, may be considered as affected in a manner somewhat analogous to plants removed into a foreign soil; where the utmost care and attention are required, to keep them in health, and to inure them to their new situation; since, thus transplanted, some change must happen in the constitutions of both. 1


The men most likely to leave their homes for a distant shore in the eighteenth century were sailors.  Whether shipped aboard a merchant vessel of Liverpool, a frigate out of Boston, or an East Indiaman bound for Madras, the seafarer of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had little but new experiences and unexpected sights to compensate him for his vagabond life of travel and travail.

Naval Medicine: The Naval Surgeon

Along with the exotic sights and sounds of the sea and distant shores, however, the sailor could also expect less pleasant discoveries. 2   Sharing an inadequately ventilated wooden hull with several hundred other ill-washed men, women, and animals; eating a diet that, though often plentiful, ignored basic nutritional needs; and exposed to people and places foreign to his constitution, the seaman of the wooden ship era fought a constant struggle against illness and disease.  Often deprived of that "utmost care and attention" demanded by imminent physicians like Lind, men who made their living by long sea voyages faced the likelihood of death by fever, scurvy, or infection.  Sailors on a man of war also faced the dangers of musketry, cannon balls, and especially wood splinters in addition to the more mundane threats of disease.

Given the infrequency of naval combat, and the constancy of foreign deployments and long journeys, sickness and disease remained the sailor's deadliest foe. 3   Not only scurvy, an affliction resulting from a lack of Vitamin C which devastated  whole fleets from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, but also various types of fevers, dysenteries, pneumonias, and sundry other ailments made a life at sea risky at best. 4 Nor did a sailor's chances for survival increase perceptibly once ashore. In most of the tropics, from the Mediterranean to the West Indies, from India to the Orient, the unfamiliar, hot and humid environment played havoc with the health and lives of European visitors. Indeed, some doctors of the period heartily recommended that crews of ships calling at tropical ports remain on board to avoid the dangers of fever. 5

Contemporary naval surgeons were familiar with the symptoms of diseases, and were ready and willing to offer treatment, but they lacked an adequate knowledge of causation.  Skilled observers and recorders of symptoms, doctors of this period lacked the knowledge of insect vectors and vitamins that belonged to later years. 6   Consequently, their efforts to curb diseases like scurvy, yellow fever, and malaria often met with frustration.  While naval doctors quite often met with success in nursing patients back to health, these successes frequently came more as a result of natural healing processes than of any particular treatment. 7   Two areas that illustrate this point most clearly are the physicians's treatments for scurvy and tropical fevers.

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The Ladies Medicine Chest
Naval Medicine in 1812 pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7


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