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 overmanned, 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 debatable, 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.” According to legend, the amputation of limbs was embarked upon just as lightheartedly—and it does seem that some American whaling masters did remarkably well with their sleeves rolled up and a knife or a saw in their hands. Tales of their resourcefulness are legion.
One yarn relates the amazing feat accomplished by Captain Charles Ray of the Nantucket whaleship Norman, 1855-1860, whose third mate, Mr. King, was taken out of a boat by a whale, his right foot entangled in the line. After cutting the poor fellow free, Ray took him on board, cut off the foot above the ankle, sewed the flap—and went back and killed the whale.
Captain Jim Huntting of Southampton, Long Island faced a similar problem when one of his men got both hand and foot entangled. Collecting up an armory of carving knife, carpenter’s saw, a fishhook, and a sail needle, Huntting lashed the screaming patient to the carpenter’s bench, dressed the hand and amputated the foot. He had to keep on summoning new assistants, because the seamen who were ordered to help kept on fainting.
Trickier still was the challenge faced by a Captain Coffin who was taken down by a line himself, and whose leg was so mangled that it obviously had to go. So he sent for his pistol and a knife, and then he said to his first mate, “Now sir, you gotta chop off this here leg, and if you flinch, sir, you get shot in the head.” And Captain Coffin sat as steady as a rock with the pistol aimed as his mate went at it with the knife. No sooner was the wound dressed and the leg thrown overboard, than both men promptly fainted.