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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Rough Medicine: nasty blunders


Told much less often are stories of captains who killed their men with a lethal combination of ignorance and officiousness. 

One such was Captain William Cleveland of the Salem, Massachusetts, ship Zephyr.  While at anchor off an island in the notoriously unhealthy Straits of Timor, in 1829, Captain Cleveland overheard a hand named Cornelius Thomson complain that he had felt a little chilly in the night.  On being cross-examined about it, Thomson protested that he felt perfectly well.  Cleveland, however, was determined "to be on the safe & cautious side"—as his wife Lucy put it—and commenced upon a ferocious course of treatment, which started with "a powerful dose of Calomel of Julep," progressed through a "dose of castor oil" and several enema injections to raising blisters "upon the calf of both legs after soaking them well in hot water," and culminated with "a blister on the breast, throat rubbed with linnament &c." 

Within hours the poor fellow was delirious, and by morning he was dead.  It was the day after his twenty-first birthday. Everyone was very upset, as young Thomson was popular with all.  Lucy wrote that he was "a correct, an amiable, respectful, very handsome young man, always ready at his duty, cheerful & obliging; he had gained upon our affections very strongly.  On Wednesday evening he was dancing happily upon the forecastle, and Sunday at 8 in the morning  he was carried on shore [and] buried."  Lucy thought his rapid deterioration strange -- "the shortest & most deceptive" sickness she had ever beheld, but it is doubtful that she realized that it was her husband's meddlesome medicating that had carried him off. 

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