Saturday 22 May is National Maritime Day; it is being celebrated in parallel with World Maritime Day, and is an opportunity to reflect upon our maritime heritage and the necessity of the maritime realm to our prosperity.
The Society for the History of Navy Medicine has for its motto Aesculapius commisit pelago ratem meaning, roughly “Aesculapius has gone down to sea in ships”–medicine may be presumed to have been part of the human maritime venture since the earliest times. Seafaring men (and thus it was until relatively recent times) must have recognized the need for skilled medical attention in an environment that is hazardous and often inhospitable. While documentary evidence is hard to find, one can imagine that the wound doctors of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt counted among their patients victims of injuries suffered aboard vessels of commerce plying the waterways of the fertile crescent and Mediterranean.
Athens was from the earliest times a maritime city, depending upon her Navy to protect her colonies and commerce and to fight wars against rivals. Homer describes two sons of Asclepius–Podaleirios and Machaon–as healers as well as fleet masters in the expedition against Troy.
To the Romans we owe the first western documentary (gravemarker) evidence of seagoing physicians who served in the Roman Navy, and Roman ships given names of medical significance are thought by some to represent actual “hospital ships”. That the Roman navy operated against commerce raiders is well documented. Naval physicians were regularly paid double that of their Army brethren, presumably to compensate for the fact that Navy service was less prestigious–and more rigorous–than service in the Army.
Fast forwarding to the late 16th century, it was the Netherlands East Indies fleet, a commercial fleet, that issued lemon juice to its sailors–the first documented use of antiscorbutics in western medicine–this nearly one hundred years before British Royal Navy surgeon James Lind wrote a scholarly article on the matter and was recognized as the discoverer of the antiscorbutic benefits of citrus.
As Navies developed, physicians and surgeons were called upon to serve in ships and ashore. And as Navies developed to protect and advance the commerce of nations, the medicine and surgery of the day followed, even unto today, when navies are actively engaged in protecting commerce against the predations of pirates in many parts of the world.