[Historical Fiction Prompt] The Daily Life of a Sea Surgeon (1700)

»Accidents and distempers, amputations and worms«

In 1702, John Moyle has served as a sea surgeon in the navy for almost 40 years. Now old, he decides to write a how-to manual on practising surgery on a ship. His book »Chirurgus marinus« covers the most common diseases or wounds that sailors around the year 1700 A.D. might have suffered from. Therefore, it is an ideal resource for your seafare novel.


»How should the surgeon prepare for sea-fight?«

Moyle’s goal? After reading, the new naval doctor should be left »in competent Readiness« to treat the wounded sailors. »Prepare two vessels«, he writes. »One with water to wash hands in between each operation, and to wet your dismembering bladders in. The other to throw amputated limbs into, till you have opportunity to heave them overboard.« (Oh, I’m already sharpening my pencil in anticipation to write such a scene …)

Other items necessary would be a large lantern to provide light. Also, the surgical instruments should be held »in readiness« — especially powders, linen, tow, acetum, broad tape to make ligature, and narrow tape to bind on splinters.

»By this time I will suppose the fight is (sic) begun«, writes John Moyle, »and your ship is ingaged (sic), and wounded men begin to be brought down, and first one having the small of his leg and foot shot off, must have the rest of the leg amputated to save his life.« (p. 59) He describes how to stop the efflux of blood, as »for the Blood is life.« (p. 60)

Later, he mentions »cautery«a reliable method to stop heavy bleeding with the help of a piece of hot iron (in detail on page 10).

John Moyle doesn’t stop here. What does the surgeon need to do in the days following the battle? Which medicine to give? Which wounds to take care of in particular? Read it in chapter 3 (page 71 et seq.)

L0072203 Pl. XII. Operation at the shoulder joint to amputate the arm. [Historical Fiction Prompt] The Daily Life of a Sea Surgeon (1700). How to get the most out of this special resource for authors. For your Seafare novel.
Image: Wellcome Library, London. Operation at the shoulder joint to amputate the arm, 1821.


Just for authors — conflicts & ideas for your plot

Moyle’s book is a gold-mine for every author who wants to write about naval battles, or the daily life on board a (British) ship. The surgeon provides a broad range of background stories as he explains in depth, how certain wounds were caused. My favourite incidents are:

1. »A Man that hath Fallen into the Sea«

John Moyle recommends: »In this case as you are immediately to trice [=tie] him up by the heels with his head downwards; so that the water may easier come out of his body. This done, give him a drag of cordial to revive his spent spirits, a spoonful of your Aqua Mirabilis or Spiritus vini is very good. Then let him have warm clothes put on and be laid in his cabin or hammock. And give him either Venice Treacle, or Treacle-water in a glass of wine, and let him sweat upon it. (If the wine were burnt it were better.) If the man should be bruised in the fall, then open a vein, and give him either the Traumatic Pouder (sic, i.e. powder) or Haustus, mixed with with his burned wine.« (page 141-142)

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2. A wound of the face or head

A man boarding the ship of the enemy has got a wound on the side of the face »insomuch that the flesh of the cheek hangs down and the weapon has glided along the cheekbone but has not broke it.« Classic scene, isn’t it?

3. A pike has run in at a man’s breast, and slanted through among the ribs, but missed the vitals (page 120)

4. A man’s skin is burned by gun powder (page 139)

5. And finally: »Sometimes a finger, or a toe, happens to be squashed to pieces – bone and all…

… so that there is no healing of it, but it must be taken off (…) In this case you must place it even on the side of a table, or some other board, and with your Exterpating Chizel & Mallet take it off at one stroke and then curate as the amputated wound.« (page 138)

L0009863 Method of amputating the great toe with a mallet and chisel [Historical Fiction Prompt] The Daily Life of a Sea Surgeon (1700). How to get the most out of this special resource for authors. For your Seafare novel.
Just in case you wanted to ask: Mallet and chistel. ~ An image from the 1740s: Wellcome Library, London.

Other common »accidents and distempers« that are most incident at sea:
* A dislocated hip bone (p. 194)
* a dislocated wrist or ankle (p. 195)
* St. Anthony’s fire, ulcers and rheumatism
* tooth ache and gum disease (p. 304)
* pain of the ears (p. 306)
* inflammations of the eyes (p. 308)
* catarrhs (p. 321)
* and also: Worms of all sorts (p. 315).

The doctor reveals common understanding concerning scurvy at that time, and how to cure it. (Hint: Drinking beer or water is causing this, Moyle insists. But if you drink wine moderately, you’ll never get scurvy! Read more on page 247-250.)


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If you want to describe a naval surgeon’s workplace, John Moyle also has you covered: In detail, he describes how to stack your medicine cabinet, and how to furnish it with »square double glass jars and bottles« to preserve the goods as long as possible. (page 38)

For every type of medicine that might have been used around 1700 — dried herbs, flowers, seeds, »farrinas« etc. (p. 41) — he carefully chooses the perfect storage place. We have to bear in mind: Sometimes, the duration of a journey would have been 2-5 years. The surgeon was totally unsure whether he could buy a fresh supply of medicine in a foreign country or not. Careful planning could make or break the success of a naval journey.


Exploring this 1700s resource

Most of John Moyle’s medical recipes can be easily translated with a basic knowledge of Latin, and the help of a pharmacist. Some words, though, may look strange to us today. For example, Moyle writes »sheweth« instead of »shows«. A timeline vocabulary might help, and a nautic dictionary as well.

For authors, this book is a great resource to learn more: first, on how sailors were actually wounded during a naval battle, or how they got sick in the daily life on board a ship. And second: on how surgeons tried to treat the sailors.

Reading John Moyle’s extensive manual from 1702 will certainly leave you »in competent Readiness« to write your naval battle scenes, and to cure your protagonists’ wounds.


John Moyle
»Chirurgus marinus: or, The sea-chirurgion«

Being instructions to junior chirurgic practitioners, who design to serve at sea in this imploy. The first part contains necessary directions, how the chirurgion should furnish himself with medicines, instruments, and necessaries, fit for that office ; together with a medicinal catalogue, and an exemplary invoyce. The second part contains the surgions practice at sea, both cirurgical and physical ; which practical part serves as well at land as at sea. By John Moyle, Sen. One of their Majesties superannuated sea-chirurgions.

London, 1702.

Earlier versions from 1693 et al.

» Click here for the online version & downloadable pdf or ebook


Further reading ~ Geoffrey L. Hudson: British Military and Naval Medicine, 1600-1830. Amsterdam, 2007.



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