Journal Article

Surgeons of The Opium War: The Navy on the China Coast, 1840–42

David McLean

in The English Historical Review

Volume CXXI, issue 491, pages 487-504
Published in print April 2006 | ISSN: 0013-8266
Published online April 2006 | e-ISSN: 1477-4534 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ehr/cel005
Surgeons of The Opium War: The Navy on the China Coast, 1840–42

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Medical officers during the Opium War faced not only the dangers of combat but, more commonly, the devastating effects of disease among soldiers, sailors and marines. Desperate for assistant-surgeons in the East, the Admiralty sent out 6 fresh recruits, one of whom, Henry Willan, left correspondence and a diary which has only recently come to light. This piece is based not only on his papers but also the unstudied records of other naval and army surgeons, all of which illustrate the pressures under which they worked, though also, on occasions, their compassion when dealing with Chinese as well as British wounded. However, as British troops swept up the China coast and into the Yangtse in 1841-2 the limitations of medical science were soon revealed: the force before Nanking became barely adequate to threaten the city and, after a treaty was negotiated, many warships and transports had too few crew healthy enough to navigate safely back down river. Because of the experience gained by both army and naval medical services and the considerable benefit derived from the arrival of the navy's first specially-fitted hospital ship, this war should have provided valuable lessons for the future. Yet 12 years later the fate of the army in the Crimea indicated that little had changed. In 1854 the navy was again short of surgeons and still had only one proper hospital ship, which operated in the Baltic.

Journal Article.  9479 words. 

Subjects: British History ; World History ; European History ; International History

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