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Acid gargles, amputations aboard 19th-century navy sailing ship

By George Webster for CNN
  • Recently released Royal Navy medical journals reveal grisly life of 19th-century sailor
  • Diluted sulphuric acid gargles, brandy enemas and strychnine injections among treatments
  • Giant stomach worms, shark bites, gun fights among host of exotic episodes

(CNN) -- A young girl sick with a seven-foot intestinal worm, men struck dead by bolts of lightning and a child so transfigured by illness that nurses said she'd been "substituted by the fairies."

These are just a few of the bizarre and exotic episodes revealed by more than 1,000 British Royal Navy Medical Officer journals -- compiled between 1793 and 1880 -- that have been made accessible to the public following a two-year cataloguing project by Britain's National Archives.

Bruno Pappalardo is a naval records specialist who managed the $150,000 grant-funded project. He told CNN:"The journals contain detailed and often gruesome accounts written by surgeons on board battle convoys as well as hospital, emigrant and convict ships.

"They give us a striking flavor of life at sea in the 19th century, and are probably the most significant records for the study of maritime health and medicine during that period."

They suggest a sailor's greatest fear was likely to be a blade-wielding surgeon.

"Blood-letting was a very common treatment," said Pappalardo. "In one particular instance the patient is drained of virtually two-thirds of all his blood. He was suffering from pneumonia and died pretty soon after that."

The journals recount how a sailor is made to gargle diluted sulphuric acid in an attempt to treat a bad case of scurvy. Another is dosed with an injection of strychnine (a highly toxic chemical used today as a pesticide). Unsurprisingly, both treatments failed.

Drunkenness nowadays in the Navy kills more men than the sword
--Dr William Warner, Navy Surgeon

But Pappalardo encourages modern readers to keep in mind the historical context: "It's easy to condemn these surgeons, but they were operating at the dawn of modern medicine and with very limited materials to hand. Actually, they were often incredibly resourceful and inventive."

The archives certainly bear testimony to a host of spectacular surgical ad libs. One entry records how a sailor on the "HMS Princess Royal" in 1802 fell overboard and spent nine minutes under water.

Having tried to warm the sailor's apparently lifeless body, the surgeon attempted a more unconventional approach: "Tobacco smoke was conveyed to his lungs through the tube of a common pipe," the surgeon later recorded. "Shortly afterwards a pulse was detected at the wrist and the tobacco smoke was discontinued." Minutes later, the patient was up sipping brandy.

Many of the surgeons were skilful artists and embellished their journals with detailed, often grisly, illustrations. These include the scarlet-red syphilitic eyeball of one Christopher Walters who was successfully treated with ammonia eyewash, and an all-too-vivid depiction of an unfortunate man called Edwards, suffering from scurvy, shown with his inside leg raw from groin to ankle.

Aside from macabre but relatively commonplace ailments and remedies, the archive is riddled with unusual tales, customs and superstitions of the time.

In 1825 on a ship carrying female convicts to Australia, Ellen McCarthy, the 12-year-old daughter of an inmate, came to the surgeon with a variety of complaints. The doctor noted: "Abdomen hard and swollen, picks her nose, starts in her sleep, bowels constipated, pirexia [fever], tongue foul, pulse quick, skin hot, great thirst."

The next day her mother presented a giant worm, "87 inches [2.2 meters] long" which the little girl had vomited in the night. The medicine, wrote the doctor, had "worked well."

Local folk legends and peculiar beliefs also feature prominently in the archives.

Dr Joseph Hughes, writing in 1827, records the case of Elizabeth McRedmond, a four-week-old baby who, although exceptionally fine looking at birth, had at her death "the appearance of an old woman." This, he says "led the women in the hospital to say that she had been substituted by the fairies -- a common belief in the country areas that they came from."

What to do with a drunken sailor is, unsurprisingly, one of the most common dilemmas running through the journals.

On 17 April 1813, John McLean, a sailor on board a Royal Navy flag ship died having apparently spent 10 days drinking gin and rum. The alcohol-fueled death compelled a frustrated William Warner, the ship's surgeon, to observe in his notes: "Drunkenness nowadays in the Navy kills more men than the sword."

From a sailor who swallows 19 pen-knives as a party trick, to the first recorded case of a hermaphrodite in the Navy; from venereal disease, shark bites, gun fights, mutiny, arrests and court martial -- not to mention ship wrecks and even murder -- the archives offer unending insights into Britain's notorious maritime past.

Until now, the papers have been difficult to examine because they are written in text at times barely legible, but after years of transcription and meticulous organizing, online users are today free to search the archives by the name of the medical officer, the patient, the ship or even by disease or ailment.

"Give it a try" said Pappalardo. "You may find a long lost family member with a rather embarrassing illness."