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Monday, November 24, 2014

Fake sea surgeon's journal exposed

Years ago, when I was researching the "Women of War" chapter for Hen Frigates, I came across a sea-surgeon's journal that had been published in three volumes, apparently ably edited by Ernest Gray, and containing what looked like gold.  Not only did it cover a little documented period of surgery at sea, the Seven Years War, but it was remarkably racy reading.

Intrigued, I wrote to the archivist at the Apothecaries' College, asking for details of the surgeon's training, to receive a brief reply saying there was no record of the man.

But that was impossible, I protested.  The details were clear. His examining board had been appointed from the College of Surgeons, and included a Mr Sainthill, a member of the Old Surgeons' Corporation.  Accordingly his reports should have been deposited in the library of Surgeons' Hall.

Sorry, no, the archivist repeated.

Alarm bells were ringing.  Some of the battle and ship details were out of place.  People (including Dr Sam Johnson) were described in unlikely places. So I appealed to the wise members of marhst-l, a discussion group devoted to maritime history, and got the usual lively responses, including many comments from Dr Martin Evans, who was -- to say the least -- intrigued.

More and more details were pointed out as wrong.  Anachronisms abounded.  Whether Dr Knyveton ever existed was extremely doubtful.  Correspondence with an extremely helpful deputy librarian at the Royal College of Surgeons, Tina Craig, then made it plain that Mr. Gray, Knyveton's "editor," had perpetrated a very successful hoax on the world, by adapting a real memoir of a real surgeon without citation. At this stage my editor and I panicked a little, the book being in production, but we fixed it by putting quotes about the surgeon's name, and adding the following footnote:

While this journal is fictional, the social details are well founded, the book being based on a "Memoir of my own Life, written in 1779," by Thomas Denman, M.D. (1733-1815), and which was published as an introduction in the seventh edition (London, 1832) of his textbook of obstetrics, Introduction to Midwifery.

I was very lucky to have avoided an embarrassing blunder.  Others, however, have kept on quoting from, and citing, the "journal" kept by "Knyveton" in the belief that the diary was real.  So, forthwith, Martin Evans has pursued his quest and his quarry, and this month the International Journal of Maritime History, has published the paper he has co-authored with Geoffrey Hooper. And so the hoax is (hopefully) exposed to all.

Here is the abstract.

Three misleading diaries: John Knyveton MD – from naval surgeon’s mate to man-midwife


This article re-examines three books published between 1937 and 1946: Diary of a Surgeon, Surgeon’s Mate and Man Midwife. They purported to have been edited and annotated by Ernest A. Gray from an old journal written by a John Knyveton (1729–1809) who had served as a surgeon’s mate in the Royal Navy between 1752 and 1762, after a short training in surgery in a London hospital. The books had been criticised and their authenticity doubted. Now additional errors have been revealed, making it certain that the books are essentially fictional and written in the twentieth century. Although drawing inspiration from a biography of the eighteenth century Dr Thomas Denman (1733–1815), and very readable, the stories are marred by errors, altered dates and events taken from other periods of time. These books have been cited by many writers and researchers who mistakenly believed them to be eighteenth century sources. We hope that this article will make their unreliability and fictitious content more widely known.


Jaime Kirby said...

I have been working on a historical novel for over a decade now, about a young surgeon aboard a merchant ship in the 1700s. A few weeks ago, I started reading the Knyveton journal on my kindle (which I had downloaded years ago but had forgotten). I reveled in how appropriate every single entry was to my book, hailing its relevance to my story!!

Then today, I was reading a particularly wonderful bit of narration, and started to smell something fishy. Compared to any other primary sources from the period, the journal began to be just too good to be true--too sensational, too well written, and too perfectly supportive of conventional secondary source wisdom you can find of that time period (in my experience, primary sources often reveal that not everything falls neatly into historians' sweeping generalizations).

Then after a little googling, I came to find the article by Evans and Hooper.

Ugh!! It was so frustrating!

I was, however, pleased to find this blog entry, and to see that you are one of the authors I have come across in my research today. I am eager to look into the books you have written. Thank you so much for all your research!!

Joan Druett said...

I was delighted to read your comment, and thank you for going to the trouble. I will forward it to Dr Martin Evans, as I know he will enjoy it, too. What a shame the journal wasn't real!

Martin Evans said...

A long while ago Joan Druett asked me for my opinion of "Diary of a Surgeon". Like you, and many others, I really enjoyed the narrative but later had doubts. Gray had forgotten about the "lost" days in September 1752, when Britain aligned its calendar from the Julian to the Gregorian. Gray had written journal entries for days that had never existed in Britain or its navy. That was what made me think it was fiction and later on Gray committed many more errors, being particularly ill-informed about naval ordnance of the period. By chance I later noticed that a retired Scottish surgeon, Mr Geoffrey Hooper, had also published his doubts, so we set to work together to pick the whole trilogy apart. Many reputable writers have mistakenly thought the "Knyveton" journals to have been authentic and have quoted from them, sometimes extensively. I have a list of these writers, but we did not publish it.
Good luck with your historical novel. Joan's books are a fine source of good information, and I also like Linda Collison's novels about Patricia MacPherson, the crypto-female ship's surgeon.