WASHINGTON – A typical meal for sailors on the high seas during the War of 1812 proved that they dodged much more than shrapnel and bullets. The food was often spoiled,and it lacked nutrients,causing diseases.
And the medical officers who treated them were often informally trained and more interested in getting the sailors back to work than curing them.
“It has been said that sailors waited until dark to eat their meals,so they didn't have to look at what they were eating,” said Jennifer Caruana,an intern at the U.S. Navy Museum. “A typical meal included salted meat,maggot-infested hardtack biscuits,dried peas and a drink called grog,which is half water and half rum or whatever alcohol was available.”
Caruana,19,was leading an hour-long tour of the museum called “Guts,Gore and Glory: Shipboard Surgery in 1812.” The tour is part of a new lunchtime series called “Hip History” aimed at people ages 25 to 40.
“Generation X is a group that we have trouble getting in here,” said Karin Hill,museum director of education and public programs. “We just want to create programming that looks at different historical aspects that are not so traditional. Our philosophy is to give the folks who come in here something that meets their interests.”
The tour is graphic enough that the museum has designed a different one for “the little ones.”
For example,Caruana said,“In a normal battle,there were many amputations,often done as quickly as possible.”
She said a good doctor could perform an amputation in 30 seconds. The sailor got a swig of alcohol and a leather gag to bite on because of the extreme pain.
Ship doctors had a lot of responsibility,Caruana said. Aside from caring for men who were ill or injured in battle,doctors also had to maintain cleanliness and sanitary conditions.
Caruana carried a wooden box full of old-fashioned medical instruments and herbs,including vials of peppermint for seasickness,vinegar to get rid of smells and rum as an anesthetic.
Doctors used instruments such as steel thumb lancets and fleams,a veterinary instrument,to drain ill sailors of “bad blood.” Fleams made a series of 1-to-2 inch cuts,draining surface blood from a sailor's buttocks,legs or from behind the ears.
Caruana said the fleam was just an example of “how gruesome medical techniques were almost 200 years ago.”
The tour makes five stops inside the building,which was a naval gun factory before the museum opened its doors in 1964. It sits on a large Navy reservation near Capitol Hill along the Anacostia River that was established in 1799. The Navy Yard has been used to build ships and manufacture ordnance. Today,it is home to military offices.
The tour ends in front of a panel where Caruana described advances in Navy medicine sparked by “the germ theory of disease” in the late 1800s. Doctors realized that if they washed their hands fewer newborns got sick.
The “Hip History” lunchtime series is free and open to the public. Visitors interested in this tour,or the upcoming installment called “Pitching In: Baseball and the Homefront,” should call (202) 433-6897 at least two weeks in advance to reserve a place.
For more information on events at the U.S. Navy Museum,visit http://www.history.navy.mil