Search This Blog

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

American whaling surgeons

Much to my surprise, I found two journals kept by surgeons on American whalers.  One was kept by Dr. Tom Noddy, who joined the New Bedford ship Java, in December 1854.  The ship was in Honolulu, provisioning for the homeward passage, and Dr. Noddy, it seems, wanted to work his passage to the Atlantic.  Perhaps he had failed to establish a practice in the Islands, or maybe he had been fired from his job on an English whaleship—which often happened.  Whatever his record, Captain John Lawrence was pleased to take him on, because after several years at sea his crew was run down with hard living at sea and alcoholic sprees in port.   As events proved, however, Tom Noddy spent more time medicating Lawrence’s dogs—“a pair of Russian hounds brought from the Okhotsk Sea”—which were subject to fits of madness that cleared the decks like a hail of shot, than he did in treating the men. 

The other man to medicate an American crew was Dr. John King of Nantucket, who in 1837 abandoned his fledgling practice to run away to sea on the Aurora.  Amazingly, he signed on as a seaman, to serve “before the mast.”  Why he had made this very strange decision is unknown, but the fact remains that he was prepared to live in the damp, noisome forecastle with the other common sailors, bunking in a narrow wooden berth with two dozen companions snoring and cursing around him, eating plain, greasy food that had been sent down in a common bucket, urinating into a barrel, and easing his bowels over the bow of the ship.  Captain Hussey, finding a physician in his forecastle, had foresight enough to bring him aft, give him a cabin, and re-ship him as the surgeon.  It is impossible to tell if the young doctor felt cheated of some strange ambition, since he did not confide his feelings to his journal.  Instead, he immediately demonstrated that he was a conscientious and dutiful man, for one of his first actions after settling in and looking around was to check off the contents of the ship’s medical chest.

1.         Alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) — astringent gargle

2.         Antimonial wine (used with tinct. opium for coughs)

3.         Basilicon ointment (resin, oil, and lard)

4.         Blister plaster

5.         Blue vitriol (copper sulfate) — for burning ulcers

6.         Burgundy pitch (spruce tree resin) — for blister plasters

7.         Calomel & Jalap — mercurous chloride plus Ipomoea purga powder

8.         Calomel pills (one part mercurous chloride, one part sulfurated antimony, two parts of guaiacum resin, with castor oil and alcohol)

9.         Calomel (mercurous chloride)

10.       Chamomile Flowers

11.       Castor oil

12.       Camphor gum — camphor resin, expectorant

13.       Salts of lemon — citric acid

14.       Cream of tartar

15.       Dover’s powder — ipecac plus opium

16.       Balsam copaiba — of Copaifera tree

17.       Elixir vitriol — aromatic sulphuric acid — acid, alcohol, ginger, cinnamon

18.       Emetic tartar — tartarated antimony

19.       Ether — ethyl oxide

20.       Flaxseed — linseed

21.       Flowers of Sulphur

22.       Ipecac — dried root of  Cephalis ipecacuanha

23.       Kino — dried and powdered sap of Pterocarpus marsupium —astringent, for dysentery

24.       Laudanum — opium, saffron, cinnamon, and cloves macerated in Spanish wine

25.       Mercurial ointment — mercury, lard, suet

26.       Nitre

27.       Olive oil

28.       Opium pills

29.       Paregoric — tinct. opium plus benzoic acid, camphor, anise, alcohol

30.       Essence of peppermint

31.       Rhubarb (officinale)

32.       Simple ointment — wax plus lard

33.       Spts. hartshorn — carbonated ammonia

34.       Spts. Nitre — Sweet spirits of nitrous ether

35.       Sugar of Lead — lead acetate

36.       Syrup of squills — Scilla maritima plus honey

37.       Liquid opopeldoc — soft soap, ammonia, essential oils

38.       Tinct. of myrrh

39.       Tinct. of Guaiac

40.       White vitriol — zinc sulfate

41.       Quinine

42.       Tinct. of rhubarb

43.       Gum Arabic

44.       Blue pill — two parts of mercury, three confection of roses, one part powdered licorice root

45.       Strengthening plaster

46.       Ashesive plaster

47.       Glauber salts — hydrated sodium sulfate

            Chloride of lime

A basic kit indeed.   King, a conscientious fellow, also kept a list of patients in his journal, which makes it obvious that he had to procure other ingredients on his own account, Epsom salts — magnesium sulfate—in particular.  The conditions treated were interesting—apart from routine cuts, bruises, and boils, he medicated men with gastrodynia, severe constipation, diarrhea and dysentery, and various complications of venereal disease—all traditional side-effects of a tough life at sea.

No comments: