It’s common knowledge that millions of pirates died from infection, disease, wounds, and more before the 18th century. Medical care back then was not at all like the medical care of modern times. Medical care among pirates was even more limited, which was why many perished in the 1700s.
Common Medical Issues in the 1700s
Fevers, boils, cholera, consumption (now known as tuberculosis), scurvy, and pneumonia were common medical issues among pirates in the 1700s. Sometimes, pirates were lucky and had a doctor or surgeon on board, either by choice or by force, that could treat illnesses, disease, or perform minor surgeries.
While there had been a book titled The Surgeons Mate published in 1617, many pirates were illiterate and didn’t have access to books all that often. The author, John Woodall, included 281 remedies for treating common medical issues as well as how to prepare them and what tools to use. It isn’t unlikely that a doctor or surgeon could’ve been captured and forced to treat the ill and wounded on pirate ships. Especially if their life was at stake.
Treating Injuries in the 1700s
Pirates often engaged in battle and sustained minor to major injuries along the way. Injuries that pirates sustained like cuts were often treated by applying pressure to the wound for an extended period of time to encourage the wound to close. Pirates would first remove any foreign objects from the wound, such as metal fragments, dirt, debris, or bullets, and clean the wound as best they could. Fresh water was in limited supply during long voyages, so wounds may have been cleaned with grog, a mixture of old water and alcohol that pirates typically drank.
Once the wound was cleaned, the damaged skin would be held together for thirty minutes or longer to encourage healing. Although the knowledge of stitches was available, pirates may not have had access to the supplies needed to stitch wounds, and it was still a relatively new concept in the early 1700s. If pirates did have a needle and thread-like material in their supplies, the tools were likely dirty and full of bacteria. Many wounds in the 1700s led to infection and death.
Performing Major Surgeries on Pirate Ships
Performing surgery on a pirate ship was not unheard of, but it wasn’t the safest or cleanest place to operate. Surgeons on pirate ships typically had all the necessary tools in their medical chest to perform surgery but not the space to operate. Close quarters on pirate ships didn’t allow for sanitary spaces dedicated for surgery, so surgeries were often performed on dirty, germ-infested surfaces. Infections after surgery were common and often ended in death. Pirates believed that once infection set in and they had no way to treat it, life was in God’s hands.
While medical care was not as advanced as the medical care we have today, pirates did their best to keep their crew healthy and alive. Standard care involved rest and letting nature take its course.