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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Rough Medicine: the medicating skippers

During the recent Nautical Bloghop, my post on Sarah Gray and the cask with her husband's corpse was hugely popular.

 If you remember, it was the story of what she did with the body of her beloved (and foul-mouthed) husband Slumon after he expired in the tropical Pacific ... how the ship was captured by the Confederate raider Shenandoah, corpse in a cask and all, and how she got the body back to Connecticut.

Accordingly, I have decided to run an incidental series called ...


Being stories from the world of whalemen and merchantmen, and how they coped with illness and accident at sea.

On whaleships, the situation was particularly precarious.
The skipper and crew — and the captain’s wife, if there — were a long, long way from any kind of educated help, as American ships did not carry a surgeon.  Indeed, if the ship displaced less than 150 tons and the crew numbered no more than six, there was not even a requirement to carry a medical chest, meaning that the skipper—the man in charge of shipboard health—did his best by improvising from the pantry, his wife’s sewing box, and the carpenter’s tool chest.  

On whalers—which by definition were over-manned, six men being necessary to crew each boat, and at least four men having to stay on board to keep the ship while the whaleboats were in the chase—a medicine chest was standard, along with a little medical guide.  Whether the medical guide was consulted very deeply is debateable, however, because it was a most unusual whaling master who did not have his own pet remedies, which he used in preference to anything thought up by a so-called professional.
“Remedy for Piles,” wrote the master of the Good Return in 1844:  “take twice a day 20 drops of Balsam Copavia on sugar and a light dose of salts daily and use mercurial ointment on the fundamental extremity”—and signed it “John Swift, MD when necessary.”
And how did skippers like "John Swift, MD when necessary" cope with challenges like amputation?
Follow the unfolding story of ROUGH MEDICINE to find out.

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