Rough medicine on the high seas

A burial at sea. The Illustrated London News, November 1880 Courtesy State Library of Victoria

A burial at sea. The Illustrated London News, November 1880
Courtesy State Library of Victoria

Rough Medicine: Life and Death in the Age of Sail will open at the Western Australian Museum – Geraldton on Saturday, 10 September 2016.

WA Museum CEO Alec Coles said the exhibition explores the fascinating history of how illness impacted upon and even shaped early sea voyages from the 17th Century until the advent of the steamship in the late 19th Century.

“Sickness could render a voyage anything from uncomfortable to horrific, or even fatal. Disease spread rapidly in cramped quarters, drinking water was often polluted, food perished and new climates brought new ailments from heatstroke to malaria with few escaping a visit to the ship’s surgeon,” Mr Coles said.

An eye-watering array of surgical instruments features in this absorbing and sometimes confronting exhibition. Ship surgeons carried an array of instruments including saws to amputate limbs, a procedure that only one in three people survived; a cork-screw like trephine to remove sections of skull; tooth keys to break off teeth at their roots; and it was recommended that every ship carried a jar of at least 50 leeches to bleed patients and rebalance the ‘humours’. 

Mr Coles said until ether was trialled in 1846, operations were conducted without anaesthetic and the surgeon’s most prized skill was speed. 

Rough Medicine: Life and Death in the Age of Sail explores immigrant voyages that are part of the histories of thousands of Australians.

The exhibition brings together an extraordinary collection that includes passengers’ letters and diaries, surgeons’ journals and artefacts including bone syringes used to inject mercury, surgical kits, and even jars of parasites and leeches.

South Australian Maritime Museum Senior Curator Lindl Lawton will present a free public lecture, From ‘laudable pus’ to the bloody flux…surviving the age of sail, at the WA Museum – Geraldton from 7pm – 8pm on Friday, 9 September. Those attending will have the opportunity to see a special preview of the exhibition from 6.30pm.

WA Museum – Geraldton Regional Manager Catherine Belcher said places are limited and bookings via 9431 8393 or are essential. 

“This unique opportunity to understand more about life at sea through the focus on ship-borne illness and medical treatments will be an excellent way to begin the exhibition’s time in Geraldton and is sure to book out,” Ms Belcher said.

Rough Medicine is developed, designed and toured by the South Australian Maritime Museum. This free travelling exhibition is supported by Visions Australia and will be on display at the WA Museum – Geraldton until 20 November 2016.