Trafalgar Battle Surgeon: William Beatty

January 2021

In this special episode Dr Sam Willis explores the life of William Beatty, the surgeon on HMS Victory who tended Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. Beatty’s life prior to Trafalgar is examined and his work put into context with primary sources that illustrate the life and work of naval surgeons in the age of sail, in their own words. This episode is designed to provide historic context for our previous episode, an interview with Jo Laird, a medic in today’s Royal Navy, who launched a successful crowdfunder campaign to purchase William Beatty’s medicine chest and donate it to the Haslar Heritage Group.

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    As always, we start by catching up on those poor sailors of the Whaler Swan, of Hull, stuck in the ice off the west coast of Greenland, in the New Year of 1837. Something rather exciting is just about to happen.

    Whaler Swan

    Monday 23rd of January, light, airy winds and clear weather the whole of this day. At noon, the sun partly showed herself above the horizon, being 74 days since we beheld her in the same situation. None but those who have been placed in similar circumstances can describe with what eagerness we gazed on that blessing luminary after so long and absence and which to us has been full of dangers and probations. The mercury in the thermometer is frozen and we are unable to ascertain with accuracy the degree of cold, but it is very severe. After walking under the awnings a few minutes, the eyebrows, or the least hair that is exposed, is immediately covered with frost. Cut up our spike plank this day for fuel, also a 265-gallon shake number 100 and 200-gallon shake number 104. Tuesday the 24th light variable winds with intensely cold weather the mercury in the thermometer being frozen. Cut up the bumpkins this day for fuel. The temperature of the cabin being exceedingly cold on placing the thermometer 12 inches from the stove the mercury rose to 26 degrees above zero being six degrees below the freezing point. Latitude by observation 71, 30.

    Sam Willis

    Welcome everyone to a special edition of the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. I came across a story in the paper at the weekend that I thought just had to be shared with everyone. An early 19th-century medicine chest with a brass plaque engraved ‘William Beatty. Warranted Surgeon. RN. 1803’ has come into the possession of a Hampshire antique dealer from a private collector near Bristol. The wooden cabinet is rectangular with two doors, stands just over 10 inches high and opens to reveal drawers and shelves with two original glass jars remaining. There’s also a disguised sliding panel which has to be opened by a secret catch concealing four further bottle racks. The cabinet would have contained a variety of tinctures from laudanum to cures for venereal disease. The case is clearly portable, it has a handle on top, so Beatty was able to carry it around. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the past not only of naval history but also of medical history. William Beatty (born 1773 to 1842), he joined the Royal Navy as surgeons’ mate in 1793, so during the French Revolutionary War, and he sees service through that war. In December 1804, he’s appointed naval surgeon to HMS Victory, and he is the man who attends Lord Nelson after he receives his wound, his mortal wound, at the Battle of Trafalgar. On his return Beatty performs the autopsy on board Victory and publishes a book, an account, the ‘Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson’, in 1807, that becomes a best seller. And he subsequently bequeathed the ball that actually kills Nelson to Queen Victoria. If this really is Beatty’s cabinet, then it’s certainly possible that it was with him at the Battle of Trafalgar. It’s important to add that there’s no specific provenance directly linking this chest to Beatty, apart from the brass name plaque, but the age of the piece is certainly authentic, as is the brass carrying handle and its associated engraving. Now members of the Royal Navy Medical Service are aiming to crowdfund to buy it to retain a part of the Royal Naval Medical Services history and also to donate it to the Haslar Heritage Group, who have been granted the use of the old medical supplies’ agency building at the site of Haslar Hospital to develop into a visitor centre. Alongside the Museum for the Royal Navy Medical and Dental Services. I managed to speak to Jo Laird, one of the Navy medics behind the campaign, about her role as a Navy medic and also her interest in the chest as a means of commemorating the past but also of bringing attention to the role of Navy medics today particularly in their fight against COVID. Jo joined the Royal Navy in 2008 and has deployed on five different ships all over the world as the ship’s doctor. These deployments have included surveying operations in Libya, counter-narcotics operations in the Gulf. From 2018 to 2020, she worked as one of two GPs on board the aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which included the first F-35B fast jet trials. She’s currently undertaking further training as a GP in aviation and space medicine. She’s absolutely fascinating, and I really enjoyed talking to her.

    Hi, Jo, thank you so much for talking to me today.

    Dr Jo Laird

    Hi, Sam. It’s a pleasure.

    Sam Willis

    So, tell me about this Crowdfunder campaign.

    Dr Jo Laird

    Okay, so a few of us decided that the Royal Navy Medical Services would love to acquire this object, so it’s Beatty’s medical chest from 1803. And we started the fundraiser just before Christmas, and we’re about 75% of the way there now. So, the final few bits to go.

    Sam Willis

    Yeah, it’s great news that you’ve got that far. How did you first hear about it?

    Dr Jo Laird

    So, we came upon a press release, actually. So, the Royal Navy had put it on their website saying that it was for sale, through Wick Antiques. And it just seemed like something that was quite an unusual piece of history. And something that a lot of us as members of the Royal Navy Medical Services thought ‘Oh this is such an amazing object that has not been in the public domain before’.

    Sam Willis

    Let’s all get together and try and try and save it. Well, you’ve done very well indeed, I’m quite impressed. But I suppose they teach you teamwork in the Navy, don’t they. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, necessarily. What I quite like about it particularly is that you say, of course, that it’s a fitting tribute not only to Beatty and his colleagues who you know, who fought in the 18th century Navy, and served in pretty grim conditions but also to the service doctors, surgeons, nurses, medical assistant, all of the various people who have been involved from the Navy in the national struggle against COVID. So, tell me about how naval medics have contributed.

    Dr Jo Laird

    So, it’s probably not widely known, but actually a lot of military, and so Royal Navy medics, as you said, doctors, operating department practitioners, nurses, medical assistants, work in NHS hospitals throughout the year, because there aren’t any military hospitals nowadays, since Haslar closed. So, we’re on the wards in intensive cares on the front line. And now, it’s also a case of there are medics out there from the military who were giving vaccinations, so working in the vaccination hubs. And meanwhile, while we’ve got people working in hospitals, there’s those of us that have been working on ships in the last year. So, I was based on HMS Queen Elizabeth and last summer, we had to take her to sea, and that’s obviously a huge thing in a pandemic, to make sure that you’re taking people safely away, and then confining them together, and you don’t want to bring an infection on board. So, it’s been a huge part of all of our kind of work for the last year.

    Sam Willis

    And what’s that experience been like? Has it been sort of frightening and panicky or sort of a bit more measured and newer?

    Dr Jo Laird

    I think it’s been new for all of us. For all of the kind of healthcare professionals across the UK, it’s been something we’ve not come across before, none of us have worked in a pandemic before. And so, relying on kind of technology to kind of innovate and get up to speed, so that we can help do the best for our patients and look after them and keep them healthy. As you said, teamwork is such a vital part of the military, and it really has been relying on each other to make sure that we’re doing the right things, and we’re ahead of the kind of curve and trying to make sure that we’re doing the best.

    Sam Willis

    When it came to your training, I suppose two questions. How do you become a naval medic? That’s my first question.

    Dr Jo Laird

    So, there’s lots of different routes. I myself joined up when I was at medical school. So, I was lucky, I did my work experience on HMS Illustrious, one of the previous aircraft carriers, and had an amazing time, and said ‘right, yep, sign me up’. I want to be able to travel, I want to see the world and have the Navy kind of offer me that opportunity. And so, once I’d done my medical degree, I did two years in Plymouth, which is one of the main military hospitals, and then went off to do officer training, and then found my first ship.

    Sam Willis

    And with your training, did it ever kind of occur to anyone to teach you how to deal with an enemy who was an infectious disease.

    Dr Jo Laird

    So, we do a little bit of infectious diseases. So, we do a kind of two-week Tropical Medicine course as part of our basic training, and obviously infectious diseases, but it’s more focused on things like gastroenteritis, the kind of norovirus picture which also would spread widely through the ship. So, it’s more focused on that we’ve not really been taught about it. But then obviously Ebola was a huge thing with the Royal Navy getting involved with Argus, RFA Argus, off the coast of Africa. So, there’s been involvement with kind of repatriating people on that side.

    Sam Willis

    You must have all learned a great, great deal about each other and also about viruses.

    Dr Jo Laird

    Yes, certainly, there was a lot, especially on the ship, we were having to innovate new ways to kind of isolate people, but make sure that we could still work, make sure we still go to sea safely. And dealing with 1,500 people on board a relative, like it’s a big ship, but it’s a relatively small space for that number of people.

    Sam Willis

    Do you still have to social distance or are you all in a bubble and you carry on as normal?

    Dr Jo Laird

    So, once you’ve been at sea for a long time, you can then relax the social distancing. But certainly, when we went to sea last kind of springtime, we were very, very safe the first few days making sure the ship was a one-way system, you could only go, I think it was up on the starboard side and down on the port side so that no one was crossing on the steep ladder chains. We had people working from their cabins if they were able to, but if you couldn’t, then you just had to go straight to your place of work and straight home, kind of like social distancing how we’re having it at the moment, but just in a smaller scale.

    Sam Willis

    With the added danger of you having to, I suppose, retrain for everything, for emergencies. I mean, I know you guys, you know, run emergency drills pretty regularly so you’re not caught short, but I’m assuming you’d have to redesign those as well.

    Dr Jo Laird

    Yeah, it was impacting kind of non-medical aspects as well. So those who are training for firefighting had to do it without putting the breathing masks on for a time because we were worried about infections spreading that way. So, it really did permeate every aspect of life on board.

    Sam Willis

    Can you even begin to imagine what it would have been like, in the 18th century when you have an outbreak of yellow fever, and you’re in the Caribbean or somewhere?

    Dr Jo Laird

    No, I mean, it’s crazy, but it doesn’t surprise me why the Navy was pushing forward with the kind of vaccination and smallpox and being really driving that forward, because it was so important on such a kind of confined personnel.

    Sam Willis

    I’ve seen the sort of results of it first-hand. I did an archaeological excavation on a beach in Antigua, many years ago, and what they thought was a sand dune was not a sand dune, it was a pile of bodies, which had been covered over by sand which have been blown there. And it was a shocking discovery, an eight-year-old boy found a finger sticking up out of the sand, which is when they started digging down. And they realized that this mound, it was a mass graveyard. And all of the sailors had, they think, had suffered from yellow fever or some other infectious disease and been brought ashore and buried. And that really struck me that if you’re spending a great deal of time with people or in a confined space, it’s a bit like a family, isn’t it? You all fall out with each other, you like some of each other? But you know, I suppose, do you get a sense of that with the crew that you work with on a day-to-day basis, you must get to really know people very well and be very anxious about their health.

    Dr Jo Laird

    Yeah, I think for being on board, you really do get to know people quite well. And it’s a very privileged position that we have as the medics on board, in that we’re both their colleagues, but also looking after them as patients. And so, you get to learn about their intimate lives that they don’t share with other people. And there’s that real element of trust. And it’s so important; confidentiality is one of the most important things for us on board in that it would just, you can’t work if you can’t keep the patient’s trust.

    Sam Willis

    That’s a really interesting point. What’s your day-to-day job like on a ship? What do you get up to? Do you have a kind of clinic like a GP?

    Jo Laird

    Yeah, so I’m a GP on board. We’ve got two GPs, a nurse, a dental team as well. And we’ve got medics who will do a kind of a triage. So, they’ll do your first clinic, see people, see whether it’s something that needs to be seen by a doctor or nurse or whether it’s something that they can manage. We sometimes have a physio and a mental health personnel on board as well. So yeah, I do routine clinics on board looking after people’s long-term conditions, looking at also their emergency care, so if they fall down a ladder, we have to deal with that as well.

    Sam Willis

    It’s funny you say that a lot of the 18th-century journals, medical journals haven’t survived, there are very few indeed and you get little glimpses of what happened to people out of diaries and letters home and they’re full of people falling down hatchways and I actually came across a couple of examples of people dropping cannonballs on their feet, which really made me laugh. I mean, you must have these kinds of common day-to-day, but ship related, fairly comical events on board, do you?

    Dr Jo Laird

    Definitely. So especially, you get hatch rash, which is obviously part of the ship, if you were going to start sinking part of the ship would become underwater and you want to keep that contained, and so there’s little kind of dwarf bulkheads, they’re called, to stop the water from sloshing from side to side and altering the stability of the ship. And people will smash their legs into those quite commonly, people hitting heads on the hatches as they’re coming up ladders. Yeah, certainly there’s hazards everywhere on a ship.

    Sam Willis

    Yeah, a unique environment. What if things go really wrong? Can you perform surgery?

    Dr Jo Laird

    So, there’s an operating theatre onboard the carriers, so on smaller ships, there’s not that facility. But we embark a surgical team when they think that we’re going to somewhere that needs it. So, they’ll come on with probably about 18 people in the whole team, so operating department team, intensive care nurses, intensive care doctors, surgeons, anaesthetist, to make sure that they’ve got all of the right skills so that they’ve got people that they can look after through theatre.

    Sam Willis

    Oh, it’s wonderful I think that this little medical cabinet appeared because yes, it raises the profile of Trafalgar and people in the 19th century Navy, but to actually shine a light on what’s happening in today’s Navy for you medics, I think is even more precious actually. I think it’s absolutely fantastic. How would people find out about the Crowdfunder?

    Dr Jo Laird

    So, if they go to crowdfunder.co.uk, and then search for Save a Part of Royal Naval Medical History, they’ll find it there.

    Sam Willis

    Brilliant. Well, thank you so much for talking to me today. I’ve really enjoyed it.

    Dr Jo Laird

    No, I really enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.

    Sam Willis

    Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this special edition. It’s inspired me to bring you next, a far more detailed episode on Beatty and the life of a surgeon in the age of sail and in particular the Battle of Trafalgar. Before we go, we’ve had an interesting query on our free forum from Anthony Bruce.

    Anthony writes: ‘I’m looking for information on how shells and powder were transferred from the dockyard or accompanying tender to bomb vessels. Any information or references would be very helpful.’ So, if any of you out there can help Anthony please do check out the forum @snr.org.uk.

    We’ve also had a query from Ede Crawford: ‘Does anyone have any information on the use of heated shot by land batteries against vessels during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars?’ We’ve had several responses here from David Hepper: ‘HMS Charon was set on fire by red-hot shot from the shore batteries at Yorktown in 1781. As was HMS Hermes, at Mobile Bay in 1814. The French used red-hot shot during the reoccupation of Toulon in 1793, setting fire to a floating battery used by the Royal Navy. Paul Martinovich has added some more information: ‘The French frigate Chiffonn landed her forecastle guns and use the with hot shot against HMS Sibylle in a battle in the Seychelles in August 1801.’ He writes that ‘William James mentions this in his naval history of Great Britain volume three page 131-132. Chris Donniethorne: ‘In 1796 in Blockhouse Fort at the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour, a furnace was installed for heating shot at a cost of 78 pounds, but there is no evidence of its use in anger’

    Thank you everyone very much for contributing there. More Society news we’re delighted to announce that of all the various nominations the prestigious Anderson Medal for the best maritime nonfiction book (it gets awarded every year) the prize for 2019 has been awarded to Professor Evan Mawdsley for his book, ‘The War for the Seas: A Maritime History of World War Two’, the judging panel felt (quote here) ‘Unlike some similar books that overly concentrate on operations, the author puts these matters into the overall strategic and economic context, with the result being that it is the first fully integrated account of a truly global dimension to the war’. It’s a landmark work, and the author is congratulated and given the award, it’s hoped that the medal can be presented to Evan at some stage during 2021, with perhaps a ceremony at the National Maritime Museum, but please check out the new section of the Society for Nautical Research’s website for more information. I hope you’re enjoying the podcast. Do please leave us a review on iTunes. It makes a huge difference to the amount of people that will listen to our podcast. Do follow us on social media. You can find the Society for Nautical Research on Twitter, and on Facebook, and on Instagram, and we’ll be back again soon for some more fascinating naval and maritime history. Bye.