Exhibition :: Rough Medicine at the South Australian Maritime Museum

1 Posted by - 20 November 2014 - Events, Feature stories

‘To where thy hallowed bones are laid, far from the busy haunts of men’

The words stitched in the centre of Ellen Moger’s piece of embroidery proved sadly prophetic. Ellen packed this memento in her trunk on the Moffat when she migrated to Adelaide with her four children in 1839. In the space of days, she buried three of them at sea. A letter home to her parents (held in the State Library of South Australia) relates how her grief sent her half mad.

It was stories like these, recorded in letters and diaries that inspired the SA Maritime Museum’s exhibition on medicine at sea.  How typical, we wanted to know, was Ellen’s story? The young were the most vulnerable at sea as they were on land—children under the age of six accounted for three quarters of deaths on ships from England to Australia in the 19th century.  A calico shroud stitched over the mannequin of a toddler in the exhibition, serves as a poignant reminder.

Rough Medicine charts the rise of the ship surgeon from barber and blood-letter— with the same salary and status as a ship’s carpenter— to a skilled medic with authority. In the 18th century, surgeons in the English Navy were forced to pay for their own surgical kits, which once they had been inspected, were sealed to ensure that they didn’t pawn anything prior to embarking. We have one of these on display with its armoury of ebony-handled knives and amputation saws. Each kit also contained a trephine, an instrument used to lift a compressed skull fracture or drain a buildup of blood on the brain. Despite the risk of infection, it was used with some success. One wonders how the patients suffered the pain, however, before the invention of ether in the 1840s. A surgeon’s most prized skill was speed, and the best could carry out painful procedures in a matter of minutes.

Woodall illustration. Courtesy Wellcome Library.

Woodall illustration. Courtesy Wellcome Library.

Venereal disease was one of the most common complaints on the Navy’s sick list and ‘one night with Venus‘ could indeed lead to a ‘lifetime with mercury’. Mercury, a toxic heavy metal, was the cure all for centuries. Bone syringes were used to inject mercurous chloride in the urethra and surgeons often believed their patients were on the mend when they began drooling (a sign, in fact, they had been poisoned by their ‘cure’).

Venereal disease was one of the most common complaints on the Navy’s sick list and ‘one night with Venus’ could indeed lead to a ‘lifetime with mercury’.

If mercury was the go to remedy for syphilitic sailors, blood-letting was the 19th century equivalent to a Bex and a good lie down. Disease was believed to be carried in toxic smells or ‘miasmas’. A healthy body was achieved by balancing the four humours (blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile). When these were out of kilter, patients were bled or purged. In the 1850s, migrant ships were instructed to carried fifty leeches for bleeding, stored in porcelain jars with perforated lids. Rough Medicine showcases an ornate Victorian example of one of these along with a scarificator or ‘mechanical leech’ with a daunting phalanx of spring-loaded blades. Ironically while bleeding made no difference to a patient’s health, these medicinal leeches are now used by hospitals for their anticoagulant properties, particularly important in skin grafts and reconstructive surgery.

The Victorians also loved thine enema. Regular bowels were seen as key to good health and enemas were regularly administered to both the ailing and robust. Rough Medicine showcases a roller pin sized ‘clyster’ or enema syringe used for irrigating the bowels. Emigrant guides from the 1850s prescribed an enema of starch and opium tincture to relieve the bloody flux (dysentery) and a mixture of Epsom salts, gruel and butter as a cure for ‘costiveness’ (constipation).

Cholera victim, 1821. Courtesy Wellcome Library, London.

Rough Medicine: Life and Death in the Age of Sail runs until 27 May 2015 at the South Australian Maritime Museum. The exhibition is free with general admission. For more information, click here.

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