Surgery on whaling ships  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

Visiting the home of my oldest daughter, Marsena Konkle, is a delight for all sorts of reasons. One is that being a novelist, her house is amply stocked with books, many of which I do not own and a few of which are the sort not found in many living rooms. On this visit I happened upon Rough Medicine, the story of how surgeons plied their trade on whaling ships in the 19th century. It’s a miracle any of the patients survived.


One story comes from a seaman, William Davis, who tells of an unlucky sailor who got tangled in the lines that secured the thrashing whale to the ship. The captain, James Huntting of Long Island, a large man (six and a half foot, 250 pounds), was notorious for refusing to use grog to deaden the pain of surgery. When the sailor was finally heaved back on board ship, “it was found that a portion of the hand including four fingers had been torn away, and the foot sawed through at the ankle, leaving only the great tendon and the heel suspended to the lacerated stump… Saved from drowning, the man seemed likely to meet a more cruel death, unless some one had the nerve to perform the necessary amputation… But Captain Jim was not the man to let anyone perish on [such] slight provocation. He had his carving knife, carpenter’s saw and a fish-hook. The injury was so frightful and the poor fellow’s groans and cries so touching, that several of the crew fainted in their endeavors to aid the captain in the operation, and others sickened and turned away from the sight. Unaided, the captain then lashed his screaming patient to the carpenter’s bench, amputated the leg and dressed the hand.”


“Another stirring tale is told of a Captain Coffin, who was hurt so badly in a whaling accident that it was obvious that his leg would have to go. Being the master, the medic, and the patient all at once, he knew the situation was complicated, but he was more than equal to the task. He sent for his pistol and a knife, saying to his mate, ‘Now, sir, you gotta lop off this here leg, and if you flinch—well, sir, you get shot in the head.’ Then he sat as steady as a rock while the mate went at it with the knife, holding the pistol unwaveringly until the operation was completed. No sooner was the stump wrapped up and the leg cast overboard than both men fainted.”


Source: Rough Medicine: Surgeons at Sea in the Age of Sail by Joan Druett (New York, NY: Routledge; 2000) p. 130.

This entry was posted at Sunday, October 26, 2008 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Thanks for the lovely sabbath read, Denis. Is this your Halloween posting? Gonna go finish my pizza.

October 26, 2008 at 2:21 PM

Oh yeah. The Sabbath. Forgot to include a moral and verse. Sorry.

October 26, 2008 at 4:21 PM

It was just the excessive trauma- I have a delicate constitution, and had to reach for my smelling salts. More of a "Monday morning, post-coffee and protein-rich breakfast" kind of read.

October 26, 2008 at 9:47 PM

Went to the library found it and read it. Fun. Thanks dad and Marsena. Thanks public library, one of my favorite places.

November 12, 2008 at 10:30 AM

We'll have to swap our favorite gory stories when we are at your place for Christmas.

November 12, 2008 at 10:44 AM

What has happened to Marsena'a blog???

February 27, 2009 at 8:50 PM

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