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Medicine and the Georgian Navy

Ayesha Hussain and Anna Maerker, Department of History, King’s College London

The long sea voyages of the Georgian period took their toll on the health of sailors. Most dreaded of all was scurvy, a disease caused by Vitamin C deficiency. On a naval voyage to the South Seas under Captain George Anson in the 1740s, navy chaplain Richard Walter witnessed the crew’s suffering: “putrid gums, ulcers of the worst kind, rotten bones, and a luxuriancy of funguous flesh”, and, for many, death.

Leg of a patient with scorbutus (scurvy), 1887. By: Godart, Thomas . Courtesy of St Bartholomew's Hospital Archives & Museum, Wellcome Images.
Fig 1: Leg of a patient with scorbutus (scurvy), 1887. By: Godart, Thomas . Courtesy of St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives & Museum, Wellcome Images.


Not surprisingly, then, the prevention of disease on board became a key concern to British officers and medics. Upon the return of George Anson, who had lost three quarters of his men to scurvy, Scottish naval surgeon James Lind (1716-1794) began to experiment systematically with different foods to determine whether they were effective in preventing the outbreak of scurvy (Fig.1). While the concept of vitamins was still unknown at the time, Lind documented that citrus fruits, in particular, and other foods with a high vitamin C content, improved the condition of patients. In 1795 the British Royal Navy ordered the routine use of citrus juices on their ships. Following this, the incidence of scurvy decreased markedly, as citrus fruits were widely accepted to be antiscorbutics.

Fig 2:James Lind Encyclopaedia Britannica By I. Wright, after a portrait by Sir George Chalmers, 1783

On his Tahitian voyages in the 1770s, Captain James Cook (1728-1779) used a wide range of foods to prevent or combat scurvy – from malt and citrus fruit to mustard and sauerkraut. Cook’s crew also harvested plant species for food from South America, Tierra del Fuego, South Pacific Islands, Tongo, New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, The Falkland Islands, and Kerguellen Island. Thus they discovered scurvy-preventing plants such as Cardamine glacialis, found in South America, which became known as ‘scurvy grass’ (Fig.2). As Cook’s crew were rarely at Sea for more than 60 days, and were encouraged by their captain to eat green salads and plants, outbreaks of the dreaded disease were rare on his ships.

Fig 3: Cardamine Glacialis Discovered in Terra Del Fuego Jan 1769 Artist: Jabez Goldar Natural History Museum Collection: TF.0008./.0003

As the causes of many diseases were still unknown, naval medics investigated a range of potential causes beyond malnutrition. The cramped living conditions on board ship came under special scrutiny, as a prevailing medical theory taught that infections were transmitted by foul air. In order to prevent disease and the transmission of infection, it seemed of great importance that ships should smell sweet. It became routine that the ships’ decks would be cleansed regularly. This also led to the widespread use of ventilation below decks. As there was little fresh water to spare, the men placed their efforts into washing their clothes regularly, instead of themselves, considering there was also no suitable place to bathe. Captains were liable to be blamed for keeping dirty ships if disease broke out on board, so officers had good reasons for attending to the cleanliness of their ships and their crew.


Sources and further reading

Richard Walter, A Voyage Round the World in the Years 1740, 1, 2, 3, 4, by George Anson (1748).

James Lind, A Treatise of the Scurvy in Three Parts (1753).

James Cook, The Journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery. I. The voyage of the Endeavour, 1768-1771 (1893).

Philip Edwards (ed.), The Journals of Captain Cook (1999).

N.A.M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (1986).


The Princess and the Physicians

By Alice Marples, Research Associate, John Rylands Research Institute. She completed her PhD at King’s College London in 2016. Her thesis is entitled ‘Collecting and Correspondence in the Papers of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). 

Hidden within some of the early Georgian papers at Windsor Castle is a collection of letters written by the Princess of Wales, Queen Caroline, to her friend and confidante, Charlotte Clayton. The letters were written between 1716 and 1737, and concern Caroline’s daughter, Princess Amelia. There are no dates on these letters, being copied in French and English seemingly by Charlotte Clayton herself. However, in 1952, John Keevil, then Keeper of the Library of the Royal College of Physicians, rearranged them in chronological order according to his reading of the course of Amelia’s long-running illness.

The letters appear to have been written to reassure Caroline that her daughter was receiving the best care, and to provide an outlet for her fears that she was not. Amelia was being attended to by various royal physicians, including Johann Georg Steigertahl and Hans Sloane (the physician, naturalist and collector who was the subject of my research). Through Clayton, though, Caroline was also secretly consulting with her ‘Esculapius’, Dr. John Freind, often acting against the wishes of both royal physicians and her husband. These letters reveal interesting things about the power dynamics within medical consultations, particularly those within the court, and the ways in which patients and practitioners alike had to engage with conflicting networks and bits of advice, and negotiate with one another in order to settle as much as possible on a course agreeable to all.

Princess Amelia of Great Britain (1711-1786), painted by Jean Bapiste van Loo, oil on canvas, c. 1738.
Princess Amelia of Great Britain (1711-1786), painted by Jean Bapiste van Loo, oil on canvas, c. 1738.

Caroline refused to let Steigertahl (whom she repeatedly called ‘the Butcher’) and Sloane give Amelia emetics or lessen the quantities of kinkana she was taking. In return, they refused to apply various requested blisters and only complied with Caroline’s demands (and Freind’s advice) regarding blood-letting once Caroline had ‘made the Prince speak a little warmly’ to them. Once, when Amelia was particularly suffering with a fever and swelling in her throat, Caroline wrote: ‘Dr Hans & Bussier alltogether blame me & say we have done ill to bleed her. That does not disturb me a moment. I am sure your friend [Freind] is the most capable of any in the world to give advice. What misfortune is it, not to be able with respect to my daughter allways to have his advice follw’d.’ When Steigertahl told the King that he thought repeated bleeding would weaken the Princess, Caroline stated that she believed she could have ‘pull’d his eyes out.’ Such disagreements only increased Caroline’s anxiety and her reliance on Clayton and Freind’s advice. She promised in the fourth letter: ‘I will make them put down in writing the course of the medicines that they would give her & then I will send it to your friend to put down his method, & they shall be given accordingly to his directions.’ In the next letter, Caroline wrote: ‘I have suspended every thing till you my dear friend have spoke with our Esculapius. If He approves of this or any thing else that He thinks proper, I beg you to send before Six for the physicians or rather the executioners will be there then, therefore dont come my dear Clayton.’


Despite such clashes in medical authority and patronage, though, Sloane’s archive at the British Library reveals something of a ceasefire between the three Royal Society physicians and the Royal family. All three continued to serve as royal physicians: in April 1723, Steigertahl wrote to Sloane, informing him that Amelia was to visit the waters at Bath under the direction of Dr Freind. Indeed, when Freind died in 1728, Steigertahl wrote touchingly of his loss. Sloane, meanwhile, was forced to write to Friend’s brother to try and regain the various medical books he had loaned him over the years.

Digitising Monarchy: Mapping Victoria and Future Prospects

Lee Butcher is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD candidate with King’s College London and English Heritage.

I am a historian and political geographer. I am undertaking PhD research on behalf of King’s College London and English Heritage exploring the spatial and political practices of the Victorian monarchy, focusing on the royal residence of Osborne House as a case study. I am interested in exploring the ways in which the monarchy’s spatial practices can be examined as a means to highlight the development of the institution’s political and cultural roles. By spatial practices I mean the processes by which ‘royal places’, such as royal residences, were made by the monarchy, and how the institution constructed ‘royal space’, i.e. how their spatial patterns (where they travelled to and from) changed over time.

A central source for this research has been Queen Victoria’s journals, digitised and made available online in 2012. A technological ancestor of the current Georgian Papers Programme, Victoria’s journals provides the digital historian with an unparalleled resource to explore this critical period in Britain’s political history. The digitisation of these 24,805 journal entries not only facilitates convenient access for researchers to this invaluable resource, it makes possible the kinds of digital and quantitative research that historians in the 21st century are increasingly endeavouring to undertake.

For my own part, naturally for a geographer, I have been keen to map the data present in the journal. With each entry usefully attributed with the name of the location of writing, I have been able to construct a database of the Queen’s whereabouts, showing where she was for each entry in the journal. Recorded by time, as well as place, it has been possible to map (using Geographical Information System (GIS) software) how the Queen’s spatial practices developed from the first entry in August 1832 until the last in January 1901. It has enabled me to produce statistical analysis of the changing patterns of royal visitations to the principal residences (Osborne, Windsor, Balmoral and Buckingham Place), and thus to explore the changing role of each residence over the course of Victoria’s reign. Such an endeavour would have been logistically challenging, and prohibitively time consuming, using either the manuscript copies held at Windsor, or the previously published selections. Improving access to sources, particularly in digital and online formats, allows researchers to be inventive and enables them to undertake complex research projects more efficiently.


The Georgian Papers Programme is an exciting extension of the agenda first articulated by the digitisation of Victoria’s journal. It promises to make readily available a wealth of sources previously accessible only to those researchers with the time and the resources to be able to visit Windsor. The commitment of the Royal Archives to improve access to their vast range of sources is highly commendable. For historians of the monarchy it promises exciting new possibilities for formulating new and inventive research agendas. For historians like myself, whose interests lay in the digital analysis of historical sources, projects such as this can only be good news. The rapid development of digital technology since the completion of Victoria’s journal suggests that the Georgian Papers Programme will provide more advanced tools for researchers seeking to engage with this material, compared to its predecessor, and will undoubtedly prompt a renewed interest in this critical period for Britain’s monarchy. I for one cannot wait to see what the project comes up with, and I cannot wait to get stuck into, and do some mapping of, the resources they produce.