Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Curing Burns

Accidents of this type are so common that remedies ought always to be in the house. Take any portion of linseed oil, or sweet oil, and stir lime-water into it till it is as stiff as you wish to spread on a cloth. Apply it as soon as possible. In common cases, nothing will be necessary but to renew it occasionally. This is one of the safest and best remedies for burns. This quote, written by Mrs. Child in her 1837 publication The Family Nurse, echoes almost exactly the treatments listed over and over again in the logs of navy surgeons on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fiction and Hollywood are both fond of showing the blood spattered surgeon laboring grimly in his dim orlop over a screaming sailor, his saw and knife at the ready. In fact, amputations, though undoubtedly necessary, were in no way as frequent as we may believe. By contrast, the incidents of burns at sea were quite high. The working of guns, it goes without saying, was always dangers but more mundane mechanics, like hot tar and the galley stove, could do frequent damage as well. Any working ship, be she a smuggler’s pirogue or an 800 man ship of the line, was going to see men burned. The only issue was of degrees.

Mrs. Child continues in recommendations, noting that “…bathing in sweet oil… is considered an excellent thing to take the fire out.” This would be a nice alternative at sea, given that cool, sweet water might be hard to come by and ice would be impossible to find anywhere but the extremes of north and south. Our modern convenience of running cool water over a finger burned at the stove would be impossible.

Turpentine is recommended for blistering, but “Care should be taken not to apply the turpentine to sound skin…” Particularly in such cases, the patient should be kept warm and this is a very salient point. Fever is not uncommon in burns; even a bad sunburn can cause what would have been a dangers rise in temperature. Mrs. Child recommends that stubborn blisters be opened with a needle. This painful operation should be followed with basilicon ointment which is composed of resin, beeswax, olive oil and lard.

The cure for the intense pain of a bad burn was invariably dosing with laudanum. This tincture of opium suspended in alcohol would, indeed, have given some relief. Its unfortunate addictive qualities could be potentially as harmful as the burn, however, and overdosing was a risk. In his memoirs, Dr. Blunt of the Royal Navy mentions a man whose arm was burned so badly in battle that it later needed amputation being given too much laudanum by one of the surgeon’s assistants. The sailor, perhaps mercifully, died in his sleep.

It’s important to remember that a surgeon at sea was not only treating adults but children as well. Little boys as young as seven were exposed to the same hazards as the men around them. Bandaging would need careful attending in such cases; as Mrs. Child notes:

Care should be taken to separate toes and fingers with bandages, lest they grow together.

While a well stocked medicine chest was rarely an issue in the service, merchants and freebooters had to improvise. A large stock of medicines was a coveted prize for any pirate ship, with the cook usually put in charge of the find. It was to him that a pirate went for a bandage, a blue pill or to have a tooth pulled. Given the potential for death from even the simplest accident, it is hardly any wonder that Edward “Blackbeard” Teach blockaded the port of Charleston for a set of surgical instruments and a chest of medicines. The story goes that he had not only rampant pox and “spotted fever” aboard him, but two men suffering burns.

Header: The Battle of Copenhagen, 1807 by Pocock


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Interesting. Just goes to show how important medical supplies were... and still are.

Pauline said...

No kidding. I pretty addressed this entire post with my teeth on edge, given my fear of burns. *shudder*

Timmy! said...

Your fear is well founded based on past experience, Pauline.