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Page last updated at 06:36 GMT, Thursday, 30 September 2010 07:36 UK
Navy surgeons' stories

By Sanchia Berg
Today programme

Drawing of a leg infection made by a Royal Navy surgeon

A young girl sick with a seven-foot parasitic worm, a baby so altered by illness nurses thought it "substituted by the fairies" and a detailed description of Admiral Nelson's arm amputation.

These are just some of the items to be found in the journals of British naval surgeons from the late 18th century onwards. They are crucial for the understanding of medical history: they show how frontline treatment evolved.

For instance, in the case of Ellen McCarthy the 12-year-old girl who vomited up an 87" (220cm) worm during her passage to Quebec in 1825, the surgeon P Power initially gave her Calomel, a mercury compound popular at the time.

When that didn't work, he injected her with "ol Tereb" - probably turpentine. That did seem to make her better: the surgeon reporting back to his superiors in London that he would have "no hesitation in adding his testimony to others in favour" of this medicine.

Detail from surgeon's journal showing the amputation of Nelson's arm
Journal entry detailing the amputation of Nelson's arm following the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797

More startling is the example of the surgeon on Board HMS Princess Royal in 1802. A man had fallen overboard and then been hit by a boat. He had been underwater for nine minutes and had "the appearance of a corpse".

Taken on board, the surgeon endeavoured to warm him up - with no effect - then "tobacco smoke was conveyed to the lungs through the tube of a common pipe". This was about an hour after he had been pulled out of the water.

After ten minutes he sighed - then coughed - and the surgeon found his heart had started beating again. He was able to get up and walk about - he left the sick bay.

The surgeon noted though that "from his general appearance, which I do not find it easy to describe, I think a favourable termination to be very problematic".

A sketch of a monkey taken from journals written by Royal Navy surgeons between 1793 and 1880
A sketch of a monkey made by a Navy surgeon

By contrast, Admiral Nelson's treatment was relatively straightforward. After his arm was amputated, the surgeon wrote: "Continued getting well very fast, stump look'd well. No bad symptoms whatever occurred... The sore reduced to the size of a Shilling, in perfect good health."

As well as recording medical information, the surgeons often wrote about events on ship, such as threatened mutinies, or lightning strikes. They made notes of the general conditions endured by convicts or emigrants and logged the changing weather.

Between the pages of tightly written diary there are sometimes sketches of medical conditions and treatments, or of exotic plants animals and people they encountered on their voyages.

The naval journals are not secret documents but from today they will be far easier to access, because the National Archives have completed a major recataloguing project, funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Miles of files

Anyone who regularly uses the Archives will know that the catalogue entries are often rather thin. There will be a very brief description of the file and its contents.

This was also true of these naval records - their catalogue entries only included the ship's name and the date of voyage.

Now the catalogue will include far more detail: the name of the surgeon, a summary of the journal including the names of people treated, their illnesses, the form of treatment, the outcome.

It includes information about additional material - illustrations for instance. Because these are often very long files, the page or folio numbers are included in the synopsis. This will make it far easier for specialist medical historians but also for anyone researching individual histories.

"On the 13th her mother brought the Surgeon a ‘lumbricus’ [worm], 87 inches long, which the child had vomited"
12 year-old Ellen McCarthy vomited an 87 inch-long lumbricus (worm)

Some 75% of people visiting the National Archives in Kew are trying to find out more about their own family.

Now - if their ancestor emigrated or was transported as a convict - they may be able to discover their details more easily.

Voyages to Australia could last eight months, and up to a quarter of the passengers would be seen by the surgeon.

Unlike most records - court documents, for instance - surgeons' journals may include some human detail. The doctor usually gives some description of his patient.

Archivists at Kew see this project as a "pathfinder" - a new route to make far more files accessible to a greater number of people.

In recent years, many records (census, births marriages and deaths, shipping records) have been digitised. But as that is a very expensive process: the Archives have worked with a commercial partner: searchers have to pay.

Recataloguing means access is still free. However, it is pricey too, and austerity looms.

Our National Archives hold 100 miles of files - that's if shelving was laid end to end - so a mass recataloguing project is unlikely just now.

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