British Royal Navy Surgeons’ Journals Open to Public

[18 October] For more on this topic, see the CNN blog on the topic.

Historians have to love governmental obsession with record-keeping, an obsession that we can trace at least to Sumeria (2800 – 1900 BC) in the middle east, the Roman Republic and Empire in the west and to the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) in China. Records from those eras, and more recently, provide rich grist for historians’ mills of research, study and analysis.

Late last week, the BBC and other news outlets reported that the National Archives of Great Britain released detailed catalogs of naval surgeons’ logs from the 18th through 20th centuries. These reports, written contemporaneously by doctors stationed on Royal Navy ships and shore establishments around the world provide some quite remarkable pictures –often literally, with drawings in color–of medical conditions and treatments, conditions and life aboard ships, even weather and geographic information. Included are such records as that of Surgeon Farquhar in HMS Theseus, in which he describes amputating Horatio Nelson’s right arm after it was struck by a musket ball during a Nelson-led assault on the Spanish island of Tenerife, in 1797.

The contents of the journals are extensive and detailed, as described by archival records specialist Bruno Pappalardo in this podcast. Unfortunately, the records are not digitized. This just means that researchers have but another excuse to visit Britain and the National Archives in Kew, Richmond, Surrey, UK.

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