Life or Death

A Seafaring Medicine Chest

Original content by: Laurie Hartnett

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

Life at sea in the age of sail meant always facing the imminent threat of illness or death.  To deal with diseases and accidents, the ship’s crew would rely on a prepared medicine chest and the dubious skills of the ship’s doctor, if there was one, or the administrations of the cook or captain if no doctor was present (as was frequently the case).  It was important that the prepared medicine chest was carefully and thoroughly stocked.  It was also essential that the directions of use for the various medications were very clear.  Often, the disorders were listed, and the medicines were numbered to match the disorder.   Since doctors were frequently absent from the ship’s crew, the captain or cook would look for the corresponding numbers needed to treat the ailment.  If a chest didn’t have an adequate supply of medicine, the results could be disastrous.

By the early 19th century in the U.S., every vessel was required by law to have a medicine chest onboard that was put together by a qualified apothecary.  This was true of ships of European origin as well.  In addition, the chest had to be checked yearly and resupplied.  The ship owner’s concern to keep the crew healthy was often more economic than humanitarian in nature, since a healthy, hardworking crew was required if a voyage was to be successful.  The medicine chest is a fascinating artifact because it tells a story, not only of the medical needs aboard ships, but also about the day-to-day life and death struggles that seafarers faced over the centuries.  It reveals the vulnerabilities these men faced in a time when treatment was often based on folk remedies and pseudoscience more frequently than hard scientific fact.

A medicine chest, replete with dozens of medicines, herbs, and equipment, was not only a required item for ships, but it was essential for the health and well-being of the crew.  Voyages could last many months or years, and accidents, unsanitary conditions, cramped quarters, and poor nutrition caused many illnesses and injuries.  A ship’s doctor (if they had one) needed these medicines to help sailors recover.  Well into the 19th century, however, medical “knowledge” was based on centuries old theories about the body, and the remedies used were linked to beliefs such as Hippocrates’ four “humors” of the body.  Many of the treatments and medicines used at this time caused more harm than good for the poor patients.  Over the many centuries of sailing voyages, and as medical knowledge and theories changed, there were some remedies that remained consistent, while others were introduced or eliminated.

The medicine chest shown here was the property of Thomas Hollis, druggist and Apothecary, of Boston, Massachusetts.  Though information about which ship may have used this chest is not available, the pamphlet associated with it makes it clear that it was prepared for a sea voyage.  Its contents include bottles, labels, and pharmaceutical accessories, as well as a pamphlet, titled “Medicine Chests Carefully Prepared for all Climates with Directions for Using the Medicines, and Treatment of Diseases Incident to Seamen”, 1826.  Like remedies in most medicine chests, those found in the Hollis’ chest included both herbs and chemical based medicines.   Though information about which ship may have used this chest is not available, the pamphlet makes it clear that it was prepared for a sea voyage that may not have included a doctor on board.

While medical practices onboard ships have come a long way, ship’s doctors are still a very important part of the crew.  Thankfully, instead of relying on tonics, tinctures, herbs and minerals, they are more equipped with the aid of modern medicines and tools.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why were sanitary conditions important on board a sea voyage? What precautions did they have to take to ensure sanitation?
  2. What made it difficult for sailors to have balanced diets and good nutrition? What do you think was missing from their diets and why?
  3. If you were a sailor in the early 19th century, what would be one of your biggest concerns? Why?