Many American shipmasters found their wives useful, roping them in to help with medical emergencies—to hold a patient’s head while the master of the ship got going with knife and saw, for instance, and also for nursing duties, sickbed work being part of the traditional female realm.
One such was Mary Stickney, wife of Captain Almon Stickney, who sailed on the whaleship Cicero of New Bedford in the years 1880 and 1881, and kept an interesting record of the men she treated. Sores and boils were common, partly because of working with salty rope and canvas, but also because of micro-organisms which live naturally on the skin of the whale.
Unsurprisingly, mishaps happened when a man lost his balance on the decks or in the rigging. Cuts and bruises could be due to more than simple accidents—during shipboard fights, for instance, or after after the first mate caught them slacking on duty.
Mary Stickney failed to describe what she prescribed for all these ailments, merely noting that she had carried “1 Paper box of Medacine” on board, but her journal is eloquent testimony that whaling was a rough life, and a tough one for all on board. One man, Will Winslow, was very ill indeed, being both feverish and delirious, but was back on lookout at the masthead the instant his head was clear enough to keep his balance—and somehow it is not a surprise, either, to find that Mary was famous for keeping a talking parrot on her shoulder.