Monthly Archives: June 2018

What I’m Reading Now – Early 19th Century Maritime Medicine and Surgery

I belong to the 1805 Club, a British outfit established to promote and preserve the history of the Royal Navy in Admiral Lord Nelson’s time, or as their website puts it, “Conserving Memorials to Georgian Naval Heroes”. I was pressed into the Club by their North America “secretary” John Rodgaard, Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret.), naval historian and fellow Naval Order Companion.

Here on the west coast, the Club sponsors an annual Glorious First Of June luncheon at a posh private club in San Jose, California. The event is a largely old white guy affair, infused with the bonhomie one would expect when a bunch of (mostly) navy veterans get together. After preprandial libations, we break bread together over truly gourmet preparations, and once fully sated, we are treated to a talk of interest and relevance to the Club’s mission.

After this year’s event the word went out, “We’re looking for speakers”, and ever one to take a challenge, I volunteered to talk about naval medicine and surgery in Nelson’s Navy for the 2019 luncheon. To my minimal surprise, the offer was quickly accepted by Steve Walwyn, our local organizer. So now starts the preparation work.

Quite providentially, it turns out, the luncheon gift handed me at this year’s event was Poxed & Scurvied – The Story Of Sickness and Health at Sea by Kevin Brown (Seaforth Publishing, 2011). I’ve already learned from the book’s early chapters that in some ways the art and science of maritime health care were more advanced than I’d previously thought.

Another treasure from my own library – Amazon reminded me that I bought it in 2008 when I did a search there – is Nelson’s Surgeon – William Beatty, Naval Medicine, and the Battle Of Trafalgar by Laurence Brockliss, M. John Cardwell, and Michael Moss (Oxford University Press 2005, paperback 2008). The book provides a good narrative on the naval life of medical men of the era, and absolutely riveting descriptions of combat surgery in the cockpits of British men of war.

It goes without saying that I will also be consulting volume three (“1714-1815”) of J. J. Keevil’s (volumes 1 & 2), Christopher Lloyd’s and Jack L. S. Coulter’s epic four volume Medicine and the [Royal] Navy – 1200-1900 (Livingstone, 1961 for volume 3).

A trailer for the 2003 movie Master and Commander: The Far Side Of the World (based on the Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of novels about a dashing Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey [Russell Crowe] and his surgeon / spy friend Stephen Maturin [Paul Bethany]) has an excellent depiction of shipboard amputations, and I’ve also found a dramatic video of the effect of cannonballs upon the sides (and insides) of wooden ships. Splinter wounds, often vicious and bloody and carrying a risk of tetanus, were the most common combat injuries of 18th and 19th century naval warfare. Any other source recommendations?

My Glorious First Of June interlocutor said of my proposed presentation, “The bloodier the better!” As a surgeon, I have no problem with this, but I don’t know–how much gore would you want to see right after a sumptuous luncheon?

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The Society for the History of Navy Medicine

Early in my post-retirement career as amateur historian, I made regular trips to the east coast to research the history of the Navy’s first hospital on the west coast, at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, across the Napa River from my Vallejo, California home. These trips inevitably led me to Navy medicine’s historical office, with its collection of materials from almost all American Naval facilities. During one of those visits, the historian there, Andre’ Sobocinski said, “You know, there are many people like you who have an interest in the history of navy / maritime medicine, but there is no organization that supports their work. What we need is some sort of scholarly society for this purpose.”

A year later, in 2006, The Society for the History of Navy Medicine was launched. With Andre’s help in getting names and addresses, we grew the Society to around 170 members from around the world. By charging modest voluntary dues ($20 a year at the time), we built a large enough treasury to afford generous travel grants for graduate / professional students giving papers at our academic panels (at AMSUS, AAHM, Naval Academy McMullen, NASOH), a research grant program, and, recently under Executive Director Professor Annette Finley-Croswhite, the biennial Harry D Langley Book Prize in the History of Maritime Medicine.

I stepped down as (volunteer) Executive Director in 2013, after nearly eight years on the job. Mr Jim Dolbow served for one year and then Professor Finley-Croswhite stepped up to lead the Society for the past four years. As I mentioned, Professor Finley-Croswhite led us to partner with the North American Society for Oceanic History for our most recent two academic panels, she launched our book prize and otherwise enhanced the status of the enterprise by her own luminous academic reputation and energy. Professional and family demands have required Annette to step down and so I’ve taken the mantle again. (We’ve learned that it’s really hard to recruit volunteers to lead organizations! If you know of a retired Navy medical type who has the fire in the belly for promoting the history of maritime / navy medicine, let me know.)

My immediate goals for the Society are to grow the membership and to build our finances. If you know people who work in the history of maritime medicine, or who like to support such efforts, steer them to our website.

If you’re interested in joining the Society, go to its Membership page.

©2018 Thomas L Snyder