Rough medicine on the high seas

News | Created 2 Dec 2016

Artwork 'A burial at sea'. The Illustrated London News, November 1880

Rough Medicine: Life and Death in the Age of Sail opened at the Museum of the Great Southern today.

WA Museum CEO Alec Coles said the exhibition explores the fascinating history of how illness impacted upon and even shaped early sea voyages from the 17th Century until the advent of the steamship in the late 19th Century.

“Sickness could render a voyage anything from uncomfortable to horrific, or even fatal. Disease spread rapidly in cramped quarters, drinking water was often polluted, food perished and new climates brought new ailments from heatstroke to malaria with few escaping a visit to the ship’s surgeon,” Mr Coles said.

An eye-watering array of surgical instruments features in this absorbing and sometimes confronting exhibition. Ship surgeons carried a variety of instruments including saws to amputate limbs, a procedure that only one in three people survived; a cork-screw like trephine to remove sections of skull; tooth keys to break off teeth at their roots; and, it was recommended that every ship carried a jar of at least 50 leeches to bleed patients and rebalance the ‘humours’. 

Mr Coles said until ether was trialled in 1846, operations were conducted without anaesthetic and the surgeon’s most prized skill was speed.

Rough Medicine: Life and Death in the Age of Sail explores immigrant voyages that are part of the histories of thousands of Australians.

Museum of the Great Southern Regional Manager Rachael Wilsher-Saa said the exhibition brings together an extraordinary collection that includes passengers’ letters and diaries, surgeons’ journals and artefacts including bone syringes used to inject mercury, surgical kits, and even jars of parasites and leeches.

Rough Medicine will give visitors a unique opportunity to understand more about life at sea, showing how people dealt with ship-borne illness and what the medical treatments of the time were,” Ms Wilsher-Saa said.

Rough Medicine has been developed, designed and toured by the South Australian Maritime Museum. This free travelling exhibition is supported by Visions Australia and will be on display at the Museum of the Great Southern until 26 February 2017.


Media contact
Sharna Craig
Media and Publicity Officer
Western Australian Museum