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

The lives of those who boarded the Spanish ships were in constant tension. In practice, any moment was favorable to come face to face with the cold scythe of the Grim Reaper. Although the greatest risk to physical integrity arose in the heat of battle. During the battle, sailors and soldiers on the deck of the ship often visited the “crockers” when a bullet hit them in the limbs, and also when a stray fragment halved the number of useful eyes in the face. Occupational hazards.

However, those who, in the belly of these wooden colossi, participated in such a complex task as reloading an artillery gun, were not exempt from a trip to the infirmary. In this case, they may suffer fractures or bruises.

Impacts and injuries

These wounds are called traumatic diseases, and its treatment was carried out in Spanish waters – and until the 18th century – by a surgeon. In practice, this character was a specialist in sewing, cutting and, above all, amputation of limbs; means mainly on ships.

“At that time there was still a difference between doctors and surgeons, although combat surgical training was preferable to medical training, since the underlying diseases were traumatic,” they explained back in 2015 and in statements to ABC, a Spanish Air Force captain. Navy and historian José María Blanco Núñez and pharmacist, lieutenant colonel and then head of the pharmaceutical service of the Navy in Ferrol, Francisco Javier Pallares Machuca.

However, it may also be that the person responsible for the ax blows and cannon shots was a human. Surgeon, a professional who was responsible for both cutting off the leg and treating the cold. “If he had studied at the Royal College of Surgeons of Cadiz, his education would have been both surgical and medical. They completed their training as surgeons in 1791, when the merger of the two faculties was approved only for students of this college,” both specialists concluded.

And to treat these types of wounds, he had several tools that, more than just medical supplies, were similar to butcher’s tools: so-called “operating boxes.” These briefcases were the mainstay of medicine on His Majesty’s ships of the line. “They had to supply “operating boxes,” and they carried with them everything necessary for the work: lancets, scissors, forceps, plates for immobilizing fractures, syringes, amputation saws, rigid or chain, forceps, scalpels, metal catheters, etc. ” , Nunez and Machuca finished the game.

However, the surgeon’s priority during the battle was not saving lives, but getting the soldiers back on deck to fight for Spain. “The main thing was that the ship continued to fight. In field medicine, in general terms, the (logical) priority is to get people back into the fight, so the mildest wounds are given priority over the most serious and complex ones. The infirmary was set up in a low battery, separating its space with a tarpaulin, as was done for the officers’ cabins. The famous picture of Nelson’s death on board the Victory confirms this aspect,” the military department added.

Against all odds, and as Nunez and Machuca noted, in many cases, ending up in the infirmary meant the difference between living to fight another day or dying heroically for the country: “Survival depended on the type of injury, at what level it happened, and what happened Whether it was an infection or another type of problem, overall quite a few survived, although there are no statistical figures.

Other ailments

But fights were not the only thing that forced the captains to fill their coffins, since every day brought with them dozens of mortal and invisible companions: illnesses. The greatest damage to crew members was caused by the lack of cleaning on board, although they were not the only ones. “Due to the lack of ventilation, aeration and sanitary conditions on the floors, the most common diseases were those that mainly affected the respiratory system, as well as hygienic ones,” the experts emphasized.

Long journeys have led to scurvy, a disease that used to appear among sailors because their diet was very poor in vitamin C, found mainly in citrus fruits, fruits and vegetables. The condition caused blemishes on the skin and caused consequences ranging from severe bleeding from the nose and gums to loss of teeth. At the same time the appearance yellow fever – leading to vomiting blood and even delirium and fever – or plague – which was manifested by fever, convulsions and, depending on the variety, difficulty breathing or bleeding–.

“With the means that they had, and in the face of important medical (non-traumatic) diseases (consumption, pneumonia, etc.), there was little they could do with the means (medicines) that were at their disposal. With yellow fever and plague, and before the advent of anti-infectives, there was no etiological treatment (against the cause), so only the symptoms were treated,” Nunez and Machuca concluded.

In the case of scurvy, the situation was different, since there was a cure for it that could be used while on land. “For other diseases, such as scurvy, a solution has been found. Citrus fruits were known to cure him, 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 precedent of “pausterization” failed, since vitamin C is destroyed at temperatures above 60 ° C,” concluded Spanish experts.

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