What it was like to be a surgeon on a pirate's ship

Originally published at: What it was like to be a surgeon on a pirate's ship | Boing Boing


Okay, but to be fair this was prescientific medicine so none of that actually mattered except to keep from making things worse. The “medicines” in question weren’t doing any good, but you wouldn’t want them contaminated with mold and mildew because it could make people sicker, I suppose.

Most of what they did in those days did very little to help anyone. The reason certain practices like homeopathy became successful was because they actually did nothing, and people recovered more often on their own than when some of the more “active” interventions were attempted based on what they believed at the time.


This is a great point, that is often overlooked. If people didn’t get worse, it looked like the herb was working. One thing that probably did help (in the West) was the use of vinegar to clean wounds.

But when doctors “prescribed” certain herbs because they looked like the body part being treated, you know there’s very little actual chance of it helping outside of the placebo effect.

ETA: For example, lungwort, given to patients with tuberculosis, because the spots on the leaves looked like lungs with TB.


…which doesn’t actually mean anything when you’re talking about internal bleeding, infections, stab wounds, scurvy, malaria, or other things that a pirate might be encountering at sea. The placebo effect isn’t some “mind over matter” magic healing force like people tend to think it is. It’s a messy combination of noise in data, things getting better on their own, and problems that got better because they were psychological in nature.


Oh yes, absolutely. Thanks for that clarification. I shouldn’t have implied that it was in all cases.


arrr tis a day for learning new words itis

one level below the orlop deck, where the ship’s surgeon’s operating theater was usually located.

From Middle English overlop, from Middle Low German overlop (“which leaps overhead”).


Good picture! I had no idea they had so many decks and rooms. Thanks for posting this.


Some debate (or deeper diving?), it seems?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word descends from Dutch overloop from the verb overlopen, “to run (over); extend”.

Sauce: Orlop deck - Wikipedia


Well, most didn’t. That is an enormous ship pictured there. Not sure what class that is, but most of the tall ships were surprisingly small. They seem so majestic and enormous (thanks Hollywood) but when you’re up close to one it’s surprising how small they really are. They are tall, though. That name is no joke. The masts and rigging are very impressive.


Ahh. This one must have been the “Warship of The Seas” then.


It’s a first-rate, just like Admiral Nelson’s Victory (which can be seen at Portsmouth)

More info (and the whole of that cropped image):


Ah, thank you! @muser got me curious so I had also just done some digging and came to the same result. The three aft deck cabins really give it away as a first-rate.

That’s a perfect example of how honestly-not-that-big these ships were. The HMS Victory is amazing and arguably the peak of tall ship engineering from the age of sail. Yet at 227’ long and displacing 3556 tons, it was tiny in comparison to even modest steam ocean liners that came after the age of sail. The Titanic, itself dwarfed by modern cruise ships, was 882’ long and displaced 52,000 tons.

What’s kind of amusing is that there is a modern tall ship industry for rich people who like the idea of sailing around on a full square rigged wooden ship. The smallest ships those people build, though, are 2-3x bigger than Victory. Modern rich people wouldn’t lower themselves to live as humbly as Admiral Nelson did. :joy:


I am SO here for pirateboing.


Given the sanitary conditions, it very likely cost more than a few pirates an arrrrrm and a leg!

Please tip your waiter!



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It’s a better result than I got with the tiny website search engine thing. My first result was a directory of ugly cars. One of which was the Buick Roadmaster, so I disregarded the rest of that person’s opinions immediately.


I figure it went something like this.

Pre-vitamin C
Q. Doc, this sore/infection won’t heal. What should we do?
A. We’ll amputate.

Post-vitamin C
Q. Doc, this sore/infection won’t heal. What should we do?
A. We’ll have you eat lemons for a week. If it doesn’t improve, we’ll amputate.


“Another satisfied customer!”


Everything I need to know about seafaring medicine I learned from Stephen Maturin.



A modern military field medic likely had more training (and better gear) than a period ship’s doctor. What was available for major trauma in the past? Opioids and amputations, yikes. 8-(

[Mea culpa: Circa 1970 I was a military medic, trained to amputate… which I never had to. Whew.]