Posted: 2nd June 2020
“We have a good medicine chest on board, which I believe to be the case with a majority of whale ships.” (Incidents of a Whaling Voyage by Francis Allyn Olmsted, 1841)
This is a medicine chest, used on the whaling ship Diana, the last whaling ship to sail from the port of Hull. During her last voyage in 1866, she became stuck in ice in Baffin Bay, west of Greenland. Trapped fast for six months over the winter, many of her crew, including the captain, John Gravill, died. The ship’s surgeon, Charles Edward Smith, wrote a diary during the voyage, which was later published.
The chest would be from the mid-19th century, perhaps bought specially for the 1866 voyage. Medicine chests were bought from reputable apothecaries, and would have been fully stocked before the trip.
On a whaling ship, the ship’s surgeon was responsible for the health of the crew, attending to illness and injury. Preventing and treating outbreaks of lice, disease or scurvy was a priority, as whaling ships would be at sea for months at a time, and the crew needed to be healthy. By the mid-19th century, the ship’s surgeon tended to have some medical training! However, the surgeon also had to act as a clerk, and keep the ship’s log up-to-date.
A medicine chest represents the medical knowledge of the time. Although this chest contains glass bottles and vials that are now unlabelled, some other whaling ship medicine chests in the collection have bottles labelled “opium”, and other poisons and substances that are now illegal! Early medicine chests did not have labels with names, but with numbers or letters. This was to make it easier to identify which medicine to use – there was no guarantee everyone who might need to could read the Latin labels – and a booklet accompanied each chest which gave instructions on how to use each medicine.
Sometimes chests contain medical instruments as well as tinctures, potions and lotions; instruments like a pestle and mortar, tweezers, scissors and bandages. This chest has a small goblet, perhaps to help patients to take the right amount of their medicine.
I chose this object because I am fascinated by the history of medicine. Medical knowledge of a time is the result of a combination of scientific and social knowledge, which has also had a huge impact on society and its culture.
I also chose it because I find it so hard to imagine what life must have been like on a whaling ship. Being away from home for months or years at a time; travelling to Arctic waters; hunting, flensing and processing whales; and if you were on the Diana, being stuck in ice for months, during the permanent dark of an Arctic winter. Reading Charles Edward Smith’s diary, and seeing objects like this, helps me to get closer to what being on a whaling ship might have been like.
Written by Research and Documentation Assistant Jocelyn Anderson-Wood.
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