From the Orlop Deck - The Naval Surgeon

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The Naval Surgeon

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A young boy seaman called Samuel Leech wrote the following words in the year 1812. They were later to be published in his memoirs (1843).

Leech was part of the ships company of the British frigate HMS Macedonian when she encountered the American ‘super-frigate’ the USS United States in one of the many single frigate actions to take place during the War of 1812, between Britain and the fledgling United States of America. The Macedonian was completely dismasted by the bigger and more heavily armed American vessel. The casualties were terrible, being thirty-six killed and sixty-eight wounded, inclusive of most of the officers. Leech’s story is one of the few surviving eyewitness accounts of the work of a Royal Naval surgeon during this period.“The first object I met was a man bearing a limb, which had just been detached from some suffering wretch. Pursuing my way to the wardroom, I necessarily passed through the steerage, which was strewn with wounded: it was a sad spectacle, made more appalling by the groans and cries, which rent the air. Some were groaning, others were swearing most bitterly, a few more praying, while those last arrived were begging most piteously to have their wounds dressed next. The surgeon and his mate were smeared with blood from head to foot: they looked more like butchers than doctors. Having so many patients, they had once shifted their quarters from the cockpit to the steerage; they now removed to the wardroom, and the long table, round which the officers had sat over many a feast, was soon covered with bleeding forms of maimed and mutilated seamen.

While looking around the wardroom, I heard a noise above, occasioned by the arrival of the boats from the conquering frigate. Very soon a lieutenant, I think his name was Nicholson, came into the wardroom and said to the busy surgeon, “How do you do, doctor?” “I have enough to do,” replied he, shaking his head thoughtfully, “you have made wretched work for us!” I now set to work to render all the aid in my power to the sufferers. Our carpenter, named Reed, had his leg cut off. I helped to carry him to the after wardroom, but he soon breathed his life out there

, and then I assisted in throwing his mangled remains overboard.

We got the cots out as fast as possible, for most of them were stretched out on the gory deck. One poor fellow who lay with a broken thigh begged me to give him some water. I gave him some. He looked at me with gratitude, drank, and died. It was with exceeding difficulty I moved through the steerage, it was so covered with mangled bodies and so slippery with blood….

We found two of our mess wounded. One was the Swede. We held him while the surgeon cut off his leg above the knee. The task was most painful to behold. The surgeon using his knife and saw on human flesh and bones as freely as the butcher at the shambles. Such scenes of suffering I saw in that wardroom I hope never to witness again. Could the civilised world behold them as they were, and as often are, infinitely than on that occasion, it seems to me they would forever put down the barbarous practice of war by universal consent”.

What Leech shows us is the reality of what the work of a doctor at sea was like, whilst trying to save the lives of sailors during action in battle at sea. Indeed throughout history this has been the role and situation of the military surgeon, repairing mangled human bodies hideously maimed by Man’s ability to invent new and more effective ways of killing people. However by far the majority of his time at sea would not involve military action at all but would rather equate to the role of a floating medical general practitioner. He would spend most of his time dealing with setting broken bones, trapped fingers etc. Whilst trying to contain (within the confines of 18th century medical practice) the fevers and maladies generally affecting any group of manual working men living closely together in isolation on what was in one sense, a floating building site. These notes and their various attachments hopefully tell the story of the role and life of the naval surgeon in the era of sail, during the years approximately 1750 to 1815. Including how he approached his professional calling and what he could and could not prevent happening to his patients. To fully understand his role it is also essential to appreciate what the status of medicine was like generally, and what life was like for the civilian population during this era. Therefore the first attachment to these notes is concerned purely with the general practice of medicine in the eighteenth century. It is only when this is understood, in the context of that time in history, that any opinion on the achievements of the Royal Naval medical service during the period can be appreciated.

Tony Harrison – Surgeon, Historical Maritime Society. July 2011

Please do contact me if you would like to discuss matters medical from 'our' period

There is a splendid mannequin of a surgeon on board 'HMS' Trincomalee at Hartlepool Historic Quay that is based on Tony and his Surgeon's role. Click here to view it on the Trincomalee website.