Joan Druett,
Rough Medicine: Surgeons at Sea in the Age of Sail
(Routledge, 2001)

I am a victim of my own high expectations.

Given the title of this book, I assumed it would provide a brutal, bloody look in the sickbays of naval ships at the time of Nelson -- a time when a fall from the rigging or an enemy broadside were equally likely to send a sailor belowdecks, where a surgeon stitched wounds and sawed limbs in the dimly lit cockpit as he strived valiantly to save lives in terrible and unsanitary conditions.

But author Joan Druett has a different goal in mind. Rather than those great naval ships, she focuses on the smaller whaling vessels that set out for the South Seas in search of, obviously, whales. And, rather than cannon shot and saber cut, the treatments needed here are more along the lines of scurvy, diarrhea and a variety of venereal diseases.

Well, ick.

Credit where due, Druett has compiled an exhaustive look at her topic, drawing on the logs and diaries of several medical men of the day. She thoroughly details the training required to be a ship's doctor, she lists the components of the physician's medicine chest and she describes the difficulties of living and working -- often for years at a time -- on a small ship where the captain might well view the surgeon as a waste of space and provisions.

But, apart from the occasional bull whale who fights aggressively for his life and encounters with treacherous island natives who are as likely to tattoo you as eat you, the book wades through some pretty dull material. Historians will love the attention to detail, but even diehard naval enthusiasts may find themselves stifling a yawn here and there as the text plods drearily through lists of various potions and unguents in the ship's doctor's pharmacy and the debates whether the lemon or the potato will better cure scurvy.

That said, this simple definition, taken from the comprehensive glossary in the back, is enough to terrify any man who wishes he'd lived in the jolly age of sail:

Bougie A long slender instrument made of metal or whalebone, used for dilating orifices such as the urethra or rectum, or a slender stick of medicine embedded in lard or some other hard fat, which is inserted up the urethra.

Thank you, Joan. I think I'll go lie down now and bless my lucky stars for placing me firmly on land in a more informed age of modern medicine!

book review by
Tom Knapp

2 November 2013

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