© Duane A. Cline 2001
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Ship Surgeon's Chest
Even the smallest ship must have carried a massive wooden chest to contain the long list of items included in John Woodall's book, The Surgeon's Mate. Because Woodall wrote for apprentices, his version is a great deal more clear than the works of many other seventeenth century authors on the subject.
It is likely the chest, which Woodall details, accommodated medical, pharmaceutical and nursing paraphanalia such as cupping glasses, blood porringers, dishes, pots, funnels, mortars, pestles and two sets of scales (one to weigh ounces and one for grains), splints, bandages, lanterns, tinderboxes, ink, quills and the brass pail for the close-stool.
The section entitled "Medicines Physicall and Chirurgicall" discusses some 270 items of vegetable and mineral origin. Each medicine was placed specifically in the upper, lower and middle part of the chest. The plan divided the upper and lower parts into 170 named compartments and thus the middle had to accommodate at least 100 items. For the most part Woodall, aware of the mate's variable academic attainment, translated the Latin names of drugs and medicines, adding a brief statement of indication, dosage and known complications.
Despite Woodall's list, the precise number of instruments provided is uncertain because some entries are multiple. Estimates suggest a minimum of 75 instruments in the chest, and another 25 in the plaster box which was separate.
Woodall's descriptions of uses of the cutting instruments must have proved as useful to the surgeon's mates of that day as it is valuable to historians today. Although the instruments are described and illustrated, Woodall rarely advised incision, often counseling conservative management combined with a humanitarian approach and a desire to avoid performing more harm than good. He especially suggested the sparing use of the trepan, remarking that many experienced practitioners, including German surgeons with whom he lived for eight years, had never found occasion to employ it. Although the brace trepan was included among the instruments, Woodall believed it was rarely needed for open or closed head injury, and urged that it to be replaced with the hand trepan which he states is an instrument of his own invention.
Presumably the smaller chest, called a salvatory, contained from six to twelve concentrated oils and ointments,
A plasterbox with its basic first-aid kit and the barber's case was kept apart. The plasterbox was the ship surgeon mate's responsibility who, in addition to equipment for trimming and shaving, was provided with an ear-picker, paring knives for corn cutting and some dental implements.
The responsibilities of the ship surgeon's mate as Woodall outlined them were: his reponsibility to God, to the surgeon and to the knowledge of his calling. He warned specifically against open disagreement with his chief for this was prone to unsettle the confidence of the ship's company. Additionally, if the mate was to hazard his life on a dangerous voyage, every opportunity must be seized to profit from the experience and record it on paper. This advice to keep a journal not only benefited the mate, but also Woodall himself, who most certainly digested those accounts to determine the contents of future chests.
Neither a naval chest nor a contemporary illustration closer in time than the 1588 military chest of William Clowes has been located. It is the Clowes chest which was reproduced by Alan C. Cline in the photograph below. The instruments crafted to fill the case were done on the basis of illustrations from Woodall's The Surgeon's Mate.
Interestingly, the Clowes chest bears the armorial crest of the Earl of Warwick. John Woodall was also from Warwick. "Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense," the motto of the Earl of Warwick which is found on the inner lid of the chest is translated: "Shame to him who evil thinks."
Above is a mahogany reproduction of the sea surgeon's chest, which was built according to the drawings and specifications found in John Woodall's book, The Surgeon's Mate, published in 1617. The small chest on the right is called a salvatory and contains concentrated oils to be used in the preparation of medications.
Last modified February 7, 2001
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