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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

English whaling surgeons

Dr. John Lyell (Perth Museum and Art Gallery)

In view of all the previous horror stories, it would seem obvious that captains’ wives on South Seamen—the London whaleships that ventured through the southern Indian Ocean to the Timor Straits and the East Indies—should have been envied by their American counterparts, because British whalers were required by law to carry a surgeon.  Journals by the wives who sailed on South Seamen are very rare—but there is one in the State Library of New South Wales, kept by Eliza Underwood, wife of Captain Michael Underwood of the London South Seaman Kingsdown, who sailed in the East Indies and tropical Pacific from 1829 to 1832.  To my satisfaction, I found that she described the ship’s doctor. To my amazement, I found she regarded him with deep contempt.

Eliza Underwood did not even call him by name, simply referring to him as “doctor,” without even the courtesy of a capital letter, and preferred to minister to her husband herself when Underwood was crippled with gout, dosing him with a dangerous patent nostrum called “Reynold’s specific” (probably a tincture of autumn crocus), even though she anticipated that it would lead to “several days of suffering.”  The reaction to the drug was worse than expected, Underwood being “unable to move himself or bear others to lift him.”  His skin was so tender he could not endure the slightest touch, but still she did not consult with the surgeon.

It was impossible not to feel curious about this despised doctor.  Surely he had been unusually unfortunate, I thought, and wondered whether any of his colleagues had had similarly strange experiences.  So I set out to find journals that had been kept by whaling surgeons on South Seamen in the same seas at about the same time.

I found nine:

Thomas Beale, Kent and Sarah & Elizabeth, 1830-1833

Frederick Debell Bennett, Tuscan, 1833-1836

James Brown, Japan, 1832-1836

John Coulter, Stratford, 1832-1836

William Dalton, Phoenix 1823-1825, and Harriet, 1826-1829

Eldred E. Fysh, Coronet, 1837-1839

John Lyell, Ranger, 1829-1832

Robert Smith Owen, Warrens, 1837-1840

John Wilson, Gipsy, 1839-1843
And I wrote about there fascinating adventures in Rough Medicine (the book)
But were there really no American whaling surgeons at all?

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