Myths, legends and truth about medicine on 19th century Spanish warships

Life aboard Spanish ships was one of constant stress. In practice, the odds were favorable to face the cold sickle of the Grim Reaper at any moment. However the greatest risk to physical integrity came in the heat of battle. During battle, sailors and soldiers on ship’s decks were often met with ‘croachers’ when a bullet struck them in the extreme, but also when a shrapnel hit the face halving the number of useful eyes. Occupational hazards.

However, those who, in the bellies of these wooden colossi, participated in a complex task such as reloading an artillery piece, were not exempt from a trip to the hospital. In that case, they may suffer fractures or injuries.

assault and trauma

These types of wounds were called painful disease, and it was treated by surgeons in Spanish waters – and until the 18th century. In practice, this character was an expert in sewing, cutting and, above all, amputating limbs; Best solution on ships.

“At that time there was still a distinction between doctors and surgeons, although surgical training for war took priority over medical training because the main diseases were painful,” he explained, in 2015, and in statements made to Spanish captain ABC. in the Navy and historian José María Blanco Núñez and pharmacist Lieutenant Colonel and then head of the pharmaceutical services of the Navy in Ferrol Francisco Javier Pallares Machuca.

However, it could also be the case that the person in charge of dealing with ax blows and cannon balls was someone Surgeon, a professional who was in charge of both amputating a leg and curing a cold. «If he studied at the Royal College of Surgery of Cadiz, his training was both surgical and medical. He completed his studies as a doctor-surgeon from 1791, when the unification of both faculties was approved only for the students of that college,” the two experts concluded.

And, to treat wounds of this type, they had a number of instruments that looked more like butcher’s instruments than medical utensils: what were known as ‘surgery boxes’. Those briefcases were the center of treatment on Her Majesty’s ships. ”Surgery boxes” were to be sent by them and they carried everything necessary for their work: lancets, scissors, tweezers, fracture stabilization boards, syringes, dissection saws, stiffeners or chains, forceps, scalpels, metal catheters, etc. “, Núñez and Machuca were completed.

However, the doctor-surgeon’s priority during the battle was not to save lives, but to return the soldiers to deck to fight for Spain. “The important thing was that the ship continued the fight. In field medicine, in general terms, the (logical) priority is to get men back into combat, which is why the smallest wounds are given priority over the most serious and complex wounds. The hospital was installed in the low battery, its space separated by canvas, as was the case for the officers’ cabins. The famous painting of Nelson’s death on ‘Victory’ confirms this aspect,” the Army said.

Despite everything, and as Núñez and Machuca point out, in many cases, going to the hospital meant the difference between living to fight another day or dying heroically for the country: «Types of existential trauma, which It depends on the level at which it occurred and whether infection or other types of problems occurred, but in general many people survived, although there are no statistical data.

other diseases

But fights were not the only thing that forced the captains to fill the coffin, as every day brought with it dozens of mortal and invisible comrades: Disease, The greatest losses among the crew were caused by the lack of cleanliness on board the ship, although they were not alone. “Due to the lack of ventilation, aeration and sanitation in floors, the most common diseases were those that mainly affected the respiratory system and also hygiene,” the experts highlighted.

resulted from long journeys scurvy, a disease that appeared in sailors because their diets were severely lacking in vitamin C, which was present primarily in citrus fruits, fruits, and vegetables. The condition causes patches on the skin and everything from severe bleeding in the nose and gums to tooth loss. At the same time, the presence of yellow fever -which causes the affected person to vomit blood and even develop delirium and fever – or plague -Which was manifested by fever, convulsions and, depending on its variety, difficulty breathing or bleeding.

«There was little they could do with the means (medicines) they had and in the face of significant medical (non-traumatic) diseases (consumption, pneumonia, etc.). For yellow fever and plague, and until the appearance of anti-infective drugs, there was no etiological treatment (against the cause) so only the symptoms were treated,” Núñez and Machuca completed.

The case of scurvy was different, as it had a treatment that could be applied while still on land. “For other diseases like scurvy, a solution has been found. It was known that citrus fruits cured it, but after a week of sailing they began to rot. “At the end of the 18th century, an army doctor decided to boil orange juice, but this example of ‘pasteurization’ failed because vitamin C is destroyed above 60º C,” the Spanish experts concluded.


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