Monday, June 20, 2011

People: The Quicksilver Doctor

As today is the anniversary of the birth of Errol Flynn, one of the greatest pirates ever to grace the silver screen, I’d like to tell the tale of a doctor turned privateer turned author: Thomas Dover.

Born in Britain in 1660, Dover attended Caius College, Cambridge to study medicine. According to his own book, The Ancient Physician’s Legacy to His Country, Dover was a good student who found his studies easy and graduated with honors. Dover hung out his shingle in Bristol where he practiced his art on the local sailors. He was fascinated by their tales of high adventure and particularly Spanish gold to the point where he took it into his head to go to sea. In 1708 he made the acquaintance of privateer Woodes Rogers who was soliciting backers for a voyage to the Great South Sea. Since Dover was not lacking for funds, he became Rogers’ primary backer and, despite his lack of seafaring experience, was made lieutenant aboard Rogers’ Duke.

The expedition was eye opening for Dover as Rogers cruised the Atlantic coast of South America, rounded the Horn and came up on the island of Juan Fernandez. It was here, in February of 1709, that the crew discovered that famous marooner, Alexander Selkirk. Dover would himself administer to the man who would become Rogers’ quartermaster and later inspire Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Not long after this incident, Rogers took a Spanish brig which he renamed Bachelor, putting Dover aboard her as captain. This would not be Dover’s biggest endeavor on the voyage, however.

In April, Rogers reached Guayaquil in the Spanish Provence of Quito. The city was famously sacked but, despite the wealth acquired, many of the crew fell ill with plague. Dover set to work, dosing the men with Peruvian bark and bleeding them profusely. He tells us that he took 100 ounces of blood from half as many men, to “… less their fevers and rid them of the ill humors brought on by a Tropical climate.” Dover was proud to say that most of his patients survived.

Dover turned the Bachelor homeward before Rogers followed. On the way, he took a Spanish ship full of silver which he valued at a million pounds. The good doctor returned to Bristol in 1711, considerably wealthier for his time and investment.

Thomas Dover moved his medical practice to London in 1713, where he wrote his book. In it, he recommended dosing with mercury as a virtual cure-all. The book was popular, running into seven printings, and his advice earned him the moniker “The Quicksilver Doctor”. He also developed a well regarded purge known as Dover’s powder which, according to Philip Gosse in The Pirate’s Who’s Who, was still in use in the mid-1920s.

Dr. Dover died in 1742 and is buried in London. His long life, though not much remembered now, was certainly an eventful one.

Header: Errol Flynn as Dr. Stephen Blood from IMdB


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Dr. Dover definitely would seem to have provided at lest some of the inspiration for the story of Captain Blood. Very cool.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I don't know if he was or not, but there's a lot that went on in the "ancient physician's" life, certainly.

Anonymous said...

Hello there, very interesting read and a nice find. Thomas was actually an ancestor of mine! One slight correction he was buried in the Tracy family vault in Stanway, Gloucestershire :)Fantastic blog!
Another interesting thing which is probably not true is the close parallels between the story Treasure Island and the events of the Woodes Rogers privateering that Dover took part in! but i have no real evidence for an actual link but there are a few things that fit!
W. Dover