Naval Surgeon
Life and Death at Sea in the Age of Sail
J. Worth Estes
Science History Publications/USA, 1998

Review by Joan Druett

One evening in the Fall of 1979, idly filling in his time as he waited in the library of the USS Constitution Museum, J. Worth Estes opened a broad, flat drawer, to reveal a leather-bound book labeled Physical and Chirurgical Transactions of Dr. Peter St. Medard on Board the U.S. Frigate New-York. Curiously turning the pages, he realized that the 176-year-old volume was a virtual goldmine — “a sort of Rosetta stone” — that would reveal not only a rare first-hand glimpse into the daily routine of a shipboard surgeon in the earliest years of the United States Navy, but also a detailed picture of the day-to-day treatment of sick and wounded sailors. (p. ix)

Dr. St. Medard's record could not have fallen into better hands. A professor of pharmacology at the Boston University School of Medicine, Dr. Estes is an established writer in the field. Students of medical and pharmacological history will already know his previous books, his rather dauntingly titled but impressively useful Dictionary of Protopharmacology: Therapeutic Practices, 1700-1850 [same publishers; 1990] in particular, while Patrick O'Brian fans will recognize him as the author of the authoritative but very accessible essay, Stephen Maturin and Naval Medicine in the Age of Sail, in the lexicon companion to the Aubrey/Maturin novels, Sea of Words [New York: Henry Holt, 1995, pp. 37-56]. Even more importantly, he was already investigating the reason why physicians persisted in prescribing remedies that did their patients little or any good, and Dr. St. Medard promised a wealth of clues to an answer.

Naval Surgeon is the result of seventeen subsequent years of research and analysis, along with a number of other serendipitous events. Through lucky contacts, Dr. Estes gained access to Dr. St. Medard's personal correspondence, his genealogy, and the biographies of other officers who served on the frigate New York in the years 1802-1803. It would have been easy to welter in this vast fund of details, statistics, and esoteric vocabulary, but instead, this well-designed, carefully compiled book is extremely readable, mainly because Dr. Estes, a master of elegant phrasing, is so anxious to share his considerable knowledge with his reader. This is particularly evident in his sourcing, found as bibliographic essays at the end of each chapter, used in preference to footnoting. I often feel uneasy about the omission of a formal bibliography, for it lays traps for even the most careful compiler — and, indeed, while one of the most quotable midshipmen, Henry Wadsworth, appears first in chapter seven (p. 110), I had to wait until the notes to chapter eight, before I learned where his ebullient journal is held. But Estes uses these appended essays most engagingly, in a personal discussion that draws the reader into the fascinating world of historical research, and shares his own thoughts and a sense of the excitement of discovery.

There are twelve of these chapters, the first three carefully setting the scene, describing St. Medard's background, education, early career as a surgeon on a French slaver, his capture by the British in 1778, his imprisonment in New England. Released, he joined the patriot cause in Boston, in a move that eventually led to his becoming the first surgeon to complete a full tour of duty on the frigate Constitution, and from there to the frigate New York. The remaining chapters detail the Mediterranean cruise of the latter ship, covering all aspects, from the political background of the Barbary Wars, conditions on board, the daily lives of the officers, to what the author calls “the disease burden at sea” (chapter heading, p. 171).

Journals and letters written by others on board are quoted freely, the letters of Captain James Barron and Midshipman William Lewis, kept in the Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary, being particularly noteworthy. Thus, we learn about the daily routine of medicine on board, the cruise being enlivened by not much more than a small explosion, a duel, and the septic abortion of the gunner's mate's wife. The New York did not exchange a single broadside in battle, and so Dr. St. Medard's greatest test was with an outbreak of scurvy on the homeward passage — a particularly fascinating chapter.

Despite his interesting life, his apparent marriage of convenience, the tragic deaths of two of his small children, and all the biographical details that Dr. Estes has so painstakingly sought out, St. Medard remains a strangely shadowy figure. This is partly due to his awkward, almost unquotable English, but also to his personal reserve: he was not even able to look the artist who painted his portrait in the eye. It is not until the epilogue that the reader finally gets to know him — as a querulous character who was endlessly petitioning the authorities for more money, whose Will reveals him as a man who was unable to live within his means. As Estes observes, his greatest legacy was the book of medical notes that he kept on the frigate New York, and which this author has so effectively mined to reveal the professional philosophy of a surgeon of a far-gone era.

This review appeared originally in The William & Mary Quarterly.

Copyright © 1999 by Joan Druett
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.

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