The United States Navy made provisions in its laws and customs to take care of sick and injured sailors. While accommodations for the sick on a sailing warship seem crude by today’s standards, access to free medical care administered by a trained doctor was a perk few laboring men on shore enjoyed in the 19th century.
Surgeons and surgeon’s mates were commissioned officers in the United States Navy. They were responsible for tending to sick and injured men, tracking necessary supplies and medicines, and recording their practice in day-books and journals. During battle, a ship’s surgeon and his mate’s repaired to the cockpit, on the orlop deck, where they laid out the operating tables and instruments. At all other times, the surgeon could usually be found in the sick bay, or sick berth, located forward on the berth deck. This area served as the ship’s hospital. Crammed into the bow of the ship on the berth deck, the sick bay was removed from the hustle and bustle of the gun deck and the periodic tumult that came to the berth deck when the watches changed.
Mild indisposition was not enough to excuse a sailor from duty, but severe sickness, disease, and injuries often earned him a stay in the ship’s infirmary. During the early 19th century, surgeons possessed an exquisite knowledge of anatomy, yet their medical worldview severely hampered their ability to successfully cure and prevent diseases. The idea that certain microbes caused and spread disease was still many years in the future. Medical treatments were intended to restore the lost equilibrium caused by physiological imbalances. By releasing bodily fluids through perspiration, urination, defecation and bloodletting, the doctor hoped to restore the body’s balance and return it to health.Read More