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A ship's doctor or ship's surgeon (frequently also called a navy surgeon or naval surgeon) is the person responsible for the health of the people aboard a ship at sea. The term "ship's doctor" or "ship's surgeon" appears often in reference to the British Royal Navy's "surgeons" during the Age of Sail. These men, like other physicians, often did not have much medical training. They cared for the members of the ship, dealing with wounds from battle, disease and the other medical problems which plagued the Royal Navy throughout the world.
During the Age of Sail, the Royal Navy carried trained medical officers aboard its warships, who usually learned their trade before coming on board ship. They were generally called surgeons. The Navy Board qualified surgeons through an examination at the Barber-Surgeons' Company and they were responsible to the Sick and Wounded Board under the Navy Board. Warranted Naval Medical officers, similar to doctors on shore, were not required to have a medical degree and were generally trained by apprenticeship. By 1814, the Royal Navy had 14 physicians, 850 surgeons, 500 assistants surgeons caring for 130,000 men on shore and at sea. They were very well paid, starting at £14 per month in 1815 for surgeons with less than 6 years of experience, up to £25 4s for 20 years of experience. They were also allowed £43 for equipment, £5 for every 100 cases of venereal disease they treated, and a personal servant. Factoring in prize money, a ship's surgeon could make well over £200 a year.
Surgeons were ranked by the Navy Board based on their training and social status. Surgeons were wardroom warrant officers with a high status, billeted along with the other officers in the wardroom. Until the Navy's medical services were reorganized in 1806, surgeons were warranted by individual ship captains, not commissioned by the Admiralty. After 1808, surgeons, like masters were considered equivalent to commissioned officers and were 'Warrant officers of Wardroom Rank'.
Surgeons were assisted by surgeon's mates, who after 1805 were called assistant surgeons. The surgeon and his mates were assisted by boys, who were called loblolly boys, named after the gruel commonly served in the sick bay. A small number of doctors with a prestigious medical education were ranked as physicians; they would supervise surgeons on ships or run hospitals on shore.
The surgeon's duties included responsibility for his mates and loblolly boys, visiting patients at least twice a day, and keeping accurate records on each patient admitted to his care. The surgeon would take morning sick call at the mainmast, assisted by his mates, as well as tending to injured sailors during the day. During sea battles, the surgeon worked in the cockpit, a space permanently partitioned off near a hatchway down which the wounded could be carried for treatment. The deck was strewn with sand prior to battle to prevent the surgeon from slipping in the blood that accumulated.
In addition to caring for the sick and wounded, surgeons were responsible for regulating sanitary conditions on the ship. They fumigated the sick bay and sometimes whole decks by burning brimstone (sulfur), and maintained the ventilating machines that supplied fresh air to the lower decks to keep them dry.
- George Bass (1771 – after 1803) sailed to New South Wales as ship's doctor on HMS Reliance. He was a naturalist and explorer; Bass Strait is named in his honour.
- William Beatty (1773–1842) was surgeon on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). He tended the mortally-wounded Admiral Nelson, and wrote an account of the battle.
- Richard Brinsley Hinds (1811–1846) was surgeon on the 1835-42 voyage of HMS Sulphur to explore the Pacific Ocean, and edited the natural history reports of the expedition.
- King, Dean (2001). A Sea of Words: Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O'Brian's Seafaring Tales. Henry Holt. ISBN 0-8050-6615-2. Retrieved 2009-05-19.
- Lavery, Brian (1989). Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-258-3. Retrieved 2009-05-19.
- Lewis, Michael (1960). A Social History of the Navy. London: Ruskin House.