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Naval surgeons' records in the National Archives

The National Archiives have digitised naval surgeons' records from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; they are available here. This material consists of journals and diaries compiled by Royal Navy Surgeons and Assistant Surgeons who served on HM ships, hospitals, naval brigades, shore parties, and on emigrant and convict ships in the period 1793 to 1880.

Blood-letting was a standard treatment at the time and it was sometimes taken to extremes. One unfortunate seaman suffering from pneumonia had 3.5 pints of blood removed in 3 hours; the case "proceeded rapidly to a fatal termination". An experimental treatment tried for fever was tepid bathing in salt water. Everyone who had the treatment got worse and all died, but the surgeon remarked that the treatment had salutary effects.

Venereal disease was common, of course. This prompted one surgeon to conduct an experiment to investigate transmission. A young woman aboard had venereal disease, and her "keeper" and an officer had "connexion" with her to see how gonorrhoea and syphilis are spread. Impressive self-sacrifice in the cause of science?

There is plenty of interesting and dramatic stuff here. Well worth a look, especially if you enjoy Patrick O'Brian's historical fiction about the navy in the Napoleonic era.

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