Smoking, Booze Once Cure-alls at Sea


Medical diaries released by the U.K.’s National Archives reveal a number of bizarre — often dangerous but occasionally effective — treatments to ailments commonly faced by sailors in the Royal Navy during the 18th and 19th century. The diaries were kept by Royal Navy medical officers who served on ships, hospitals and brigades from 1793 to 1880.

The completeness and consistency of the records has offered historians a rare look at the history of medicine on the high seas.

Throughout various expeditions embarked upon by the Royal Navy, these surgeon-sailors encountered a myriad of diseases and conditions — and had some truly outlandish ideas for how to cure them.

In one account, a man who had been overboard for 12 minutes was revived with tobacco smoke. Sailors suffering from scorpion stings or tarantula bites were treated with rum. Diluted sulfuric acid was used as a gargle, and pneumonia was treated by bloodletting — 3.5 pints every three hours — which often inevitably led to death.

Some of the surgeons’ tales include some truly bizarre entries. In one stomach-churning report, a surgeon details how a 12-year-old girl who had been complaining about an upset stomach vomited up an 87-inch-long worm. Another account details a boat that is attacked by a walrus.

Surgeons on the high seas also saw their fair share of bad luck, from lightning strikes to shipwrecks.

That isn’t to say that sailor themselves didn’t create their own trouble. Gun fights, drunken brawls (one surgeon even laments the pitfall of “grog”) and mutiny also left their fair share of wounds, broken bones and bodies, according to the surgeons’ accounts.

One entry discusses how sexually transmitted diseases were spread on the HMS Gladiator. In this account, an officer who has syphilis has numerous encounters with a young woman suspected of harboring gonorrhea as an “experiment.” Another ship’s medic even reported traces of venereal disease in the eyeball of one sailor.

Although these accounts are often gruesome, they provide a window into the history of the high seas when the Royal Navy ruled the waves.

For more highlights from the journal entries, click here.

To listen to a podcast about this discovery and read some of the original journal entries of these surgeon sailors, click here to explore “Surgeons at Sea” at The National Archives.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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