Poxed and Scurvied

Glyn Williams on diseases and cures for sailors of the past

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Reviewed by: Glyn Williams
Author: Kevin Brown
Publisher: Seaforth Publishing
Price (RRP): £25

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Despite its gimcrack title this is a serious work by an author well qualified in medical matters.
The first half describes health problems in the Royal Navy during the sailing ship era; there is little on the mercantile marine or on foreign seafarers. It is a story of gradual improvement, but from a low base.

The main task of ships’ surgeons was treating battle casualties, usually by amputation (without anaesthetic). Arthur Devis’s painting of the death of Nelson in the gloomy cockpit of the Victory gives an idea of the conditions in which surgeons carried out their bloody task.

However, many more seamen died from sickness than in battle, and in treating disease most surgeons were even more ignorant than their counterparts on shore. Although scurvy was notorious as the scourge of the sea, its ravages were chiefly confined to long voyages, and on routine cruises typhus, dysentery and yellow fever killed many more men.

The lot of the sick and wounded at sea was appalling, as they languished below deck amid filth and stench. Reformers at sea and on land slowly introduced improvements: better diet (the Admiralty authorised the issue of lemon juice in 1795 to combat scurvy), an emphasis on cleanliness and adequate ventilation, and the building of naval hospitals on shore.

The rest of the book ranges from descriptions of the dire conditions on slaving ships and emigrant vessels to life on the passenger liners and cruise ships of the 20th century, where the doctor’s role could be more social than medicinal. In today’s navy, serious casualties are air-lifted ashore for specialist attention.

Kevin Brown’s wide reading is shown by the number of quotations that enliven his text. There is space for only one here, Nelson’s cautionary remark that “the great thing in all military service is health, and it is easier for an officer to keep men healthy than for a physician to cure them”. 

Glyn Williams is the author of Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage (Allen Lane, 2009)   
 

See also…

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The best books on the Royal Navy in Nelson’s time