Few knew the life of a naval surgeon better than William Beatty. Beatty began his naval career in 1791 at the young age of 18 after passing the examinations of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. He was immediately appointed to his first ship, the Dictator, the first of many in his lifetime. Beatty would go on to serve on the Iphigenia, Hermione, Flying Fish, Alligator, Pomona, Amethyst, Alcmene, Resistance, and Spencer, before being appointed surgeon to one of the most renowned ships in naval history, HMS Victory.
Life at sea was not one of ease, particularly for the ship’s surgeon. The surgeon was easily outnumbered by the number of crewmen in his care, regularly having to deal with infectious diseases, battle injuries, cases of drunkenness, and mental ill-health, to name a few. Dealing with such a variety of medical and surgical cases in cramped quarters with poor hygiene and limited supplies, the job of a ship’s surgeon was not one to be envied.
The range of cases that a naval surgeon could encounter had to be reflected in the instrument cases they owned. This can easily be seen in Beatty’s surgical instrument case, which is part of our heritage collections here at the College. Inside, the instruments include a screw tourniquet to control bloodloss, an amputation knife with detachable handles for the removal of gangrenous limbs, two trephines for cranial incisions, and forceps. More instruments are contained in the box lid, such as a bow saw, knife, and hook.
Some cases, however, could not be treated by any number of instruments or medications. Indeed, one case that Beatty could not cure was the fatal wound that Lord Nelson endured during the Battle of Trafalgar, a musketball shot through the chest. He subsequently wrote what was essentially an autopsy report, the “Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson“, as there were many of the public who wished to know the cause of Nelson’s death.
No, the life of a naval surgeon was not one of ease…but it was a memorable one.
Listen in to episode 5 of Body of Work Bites here: https://heritage.rcpsg.ac.uk/learn
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