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Home-Loney-Background-The Naval Surgeon 1848

The Lancet, 1849, vol II, page 26:


To the Editor of THE LANCET.

Sir - The thanks of the medical profession are justly due to Sir De Lacy Evans for his advocacy of the cause of army medical officers, by which he has obtained a promise from the premier to institute an inquiry, with a view to alter the present system of distribution of honorary rewards towards these deserving officers. But how much more does the present position of the junior naval medical officers claim attention! Have not our universities and colleges protested against the unjust and anomalous position of naval assistant-surgeons?

In what has it resulted? In nothing more than an acknowledgement on the part of the Admiralty of the petitions of all these bodies. In spite of public opinion, in spite of respectful remonstrances, are naval assistant-surgeons still to be denied the privileges afforded to all other officers entering the service at an adult age? Some of the Lords of the Admiralty will be inclined to answer this question in the affirmative. Can we not, therefore, reasonably request some of our parliamentary friends to demand of some of the members of the Board of Admiralty whether they purpose paying any attention to the remonstrances and petitions forwarded to them in favour of an improvement in the position of assistant-surgeons.

I remain, Sir, your obedient servant.,

M.R.C.S., R.N.

The Lancet, 1849, vol II, page 52:


To the Editor of THE LANCET.

Sir, - As a member of the medical profession, I take particular interest in the war which is now waging between the Assistant-surgeons in the Navy and the Lords of the Admiralty - a war carried on by the assistants in defence of their just rights, and resisted by the lords from prejudice. Having witnessed with pleasure the able manner in which you have fought the battle of your professional brethren, I should, nevertheless, have scarcely ventured into the arena, had I not felt capable of strengthening the cause which you have so nobly advocated. I happen, however, to have commenced my career as a midshipman in the navy, and am therefore able to afford some information respecting the situation of naval assistants of which you do not seem aware. Having fought my way to the top of my school, never having lost a battle, and having read of he daring of Nelson, whose funeral I witnessed,

I felt anxious for some more extended field in which I could exercise my pugnacity, and therefore selected the navy as a profession. The first vessel I joined was a sloop of war lying at Sheerness; and during the time we remained in harbour, the principal amusement we had was kicking up rows with the dock-yard matys, the soubriqnet by which the workmen in the dock-yards were at that time distinguished, and in these rows, not only the midshipmen, but the lieutenants, and sometimes even the captains, took part. This was in 1806, and I have no doubt matters have improved since then; but at that the situation of an assistant-surgeon was most miserable. I, Sir, in common with, the other middies, had a decided spite (which Captain Berkeley seems to share) against them, and considered it a point of honour to annoy them as much as possible, which we had constant opportunities of doing. On looking back, it is to me a matter of surprise how men of education could have submitted to such treatment. Not the slightest comfort had they at command; a chest to sit upon, and a biscuit to eat off, were the only luxuries. they could boast. Plates and dishes, or a glass to drink out of, were not to be had; but worse than all was the ribaldry their ears were regaled with - I am quite sure the language of a brothel is chaste in comparison; and when they retired to rest, fourteen inches by six feet six inches was all the space allowed them.

After serving in two sloops, I was at length removed to a first-class frigate, and here you would expect a little more refinement; but the difference was small indeed. It is true, on entering, we had to subscribe a handsome sum for outfit, which was expended in plates, dishes, glass, &c. &c., and a sufficient stock of crockery &c. was provided; but in a very few days, such was our recklessness, not a single article remained unbroken - a biscuit becoming the substitute for a plate, and a tin mug serving for a drinking utensil. I leave you to imagine what must be the state of feeling of a studious, quiet man in such company; moreover, when he was constantly liable to be bullied and faulted by a set of ruffianly boys, of which I fear (a row being the delight of my heart) I was one of the worst. Not content with insult, personal violence was in some instances inflicted upon the unhappy victim. On one occasion, we had reason to suspect our assistant had made some complaint of our conduct to the officers in the gun-room - and what was our revenge? We watched our opportunity, seized him, and laying him across a chest, we colted him with a bootjack until we nearly killed him, he at the time suffering from numerous boils in the nates; and for all this he obtained no redress!

The above description will afford you an accurate idea of the position of an assistant-surgeon in 1806; but I am anxious to do more than this, by adding some facts which have been omitted by you, and, still more strangely, by the naval members of the profession who have used your columns in vindication of their claims. You urge, and with justice, that while the engineer and the schoolmaster are provided with cabins, the assistant-surgeon is allowed no such luxury; but you do not appear to be aware that the gunner, the carpenter, and the boatswain, enjoy the same privilege. Assistant-surgeons must not be content with having cabins awarded to them; nothing short of messing in the ward-room ought to satisfy their demands. And why not grant them this privilege, to which their profession, their education, fully entitles them? The purser, who messes in the ward-room, holds the rank, I believe, of lieutenant: why, I have never been able to understand, as he is neither more nor less than a shop-keeper afloat, making from his dealings a greater or less income, according to the number of men on board. In a first-rate, I have been informed a purser will make his £1000 per annum. The master also, who has in most instances served his time in the merchant-service, and is in general promoted from before the mast, and who, you may suppose, has but little pretension to the character of a gentleman, holds the same rank, and messes in the ward-room.

It would seem that, according to some comparatively recent regulations, naval assistants rank with, but always after mates. Why after them, I would ask? The mates, when I was in the navy, were generally an older class of midshipmen, men who were good seamen, but who were uneducated - too old to remain as middies, and too coarse and vulgar to enter the ward-room as lieutenants - very useful men in their way, but by no means entitled to rank with gentlemen; there were, however, many exceptions, but this description would apply generally.

I feel quite assured no difficulty will deter you from vindicating the just claims of your professional brethren, in whatever position they may be placed; and I think the colleges would be only performing their duty were they to aid you in your endeavours; but there is a singular apathy and indifference, not only in the colleges, but in the medical profession generally, respecting the interests of their brethren.

Were we animated by a proper esprit de corps, we should establish an influence which must be felt throughout the ramifications of society, and acquire a degree of power which would protect us from insult, and secure to us those privileges to which our usefulness and our acquirements justly entitle us. We have the power of helping ourselves, and if we will not avail ourselves of it, we must be content to suffer the obloquy and oppression due to our pusillanimity.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,


The Lancet, 1849, vol II, page 101:


To the Editor of THE LANCET.

Sir,- I have read your editorial remarks on the subject of giving honorary distinctions to the medical officers of the army and navy, and also the speech of Sir De Lacy Evans, and quite agree with all that is written. The medical officers have but few friends and advocates among the general officers, and I know of no other reason but that the medicos, during the war, were composed, with very few exceptions, (of a class of men) very different from those who hold similar situations at this time. They were, for the most part, men of very deficient professional and general education, and had come from a low class of society. There was a sudden demand for a great number of assistant-surgeons, and the board at home were compelled to send out all they could get. Some, that had more interest with the authorities of the day, were allowed to retire upon half-pay, after a very short period of Service. For instance, Bransby Cooper stands on the half-pay list of the Ordnance Medical Department as second assistant-surgeon; he served five years and a half only, and has been receiving half-pay for that short period of service ever since 1816! This is too bad. The present race of medical officers are of a very superior class of men in every way, of good professional acquirements, and of gentlemanly bearing, but to them I would suggest that they might give the benefits of their practical experience to the world. None have more opportunities than they have either for practice or for pathology. Having disease under their care from the very commencement to its termination, they can trace its course and the operation of remedies, more than any surgeon at a civil hospital. The rules of the service require that every patient applying for medical assistance shall have his case entered in a journal kept for the purpose; and that a post-mortem examination shall be made of every one that dies. Of all the number of works teeming from the medical publishers, how very few are written by army or naval officers. Do they ever appear in your columns, or in those of any of your contemporaries? And yet no civilian has so much leisure time.

I am, Sir, yours obediently,


The Lancet, 1849, vol II, page 105:


To the Editor of THE LANCET.

Sir,- I beg you to have the kindness to publish a letter for me, which exposes the system employed to retain assistant-surgeons in the service, who would leave it as soon as they discovered the true nature of their position.

I also inclose a letter from a friend, for which I will be fully answerable.

I would beg to observe, that if the name of second surgeon were substituted for that of assistant-surgeon, it would remove mach of the prejudice that now exists. There is a precedent for it in the change of the name of schoolmaster (a gun-room officer) to that of naval instructor, (who is a ward-room member.)

If this should be objected to, an excellent plan to destroy jealous feeling on the subject would be to cause all medical men entering the service to be, in the first place, officers of the marine corps.

An assistant-surgeon would thus go to sea as a marine officer, and would receive the same privileges. On promotion to the rank of naval surgeon, he would for the first time wear the blue coat.

By this means no officer wearing blue uniform would join the gun-room, except in boyhood.

The purser enters the service as a clerk, the master as a master's assistant, and the lieutenant as a naval cadet. It would, then, depend on the Admiralty whether old mates, second masters, and clerks should be admitted to the ward-room, or not. The question would be separated from that of the assistant-surgeons.

I beg to express to you the sincere gratitude of naval medical men for your continued labours in their behalf; and I remain, Sir, your obedient servant,

F. JAMES BROWNE M.D. Lond. & Edin.,
Assistant-Surgeon R.N.
H.M.S. "Howe," Bay of Naples
March, 1849.

P.S.- I sign my name and address, for publication, that the Admiralty may be openly apprised of one, at least, of their opponents. I trust that all naval medical men will do the same.

The Lancet, 1849, vol II, page 164:


To the Editor of THE LANCET.

Sir, - I beg for insertion for the follow observations -

Assistant-surgeons that are appointed to the naval hospitals are put under a bond for £200 to serve five years at sea, if required to do so.

The services of these gentlemen are thus forced; and without the bond the Admiralty would lose them entirely.

I refer to the records at Somerset House as a reason for my assertion that the navy would be deprived of the services of those assistant-surgeons who might serve in the hospitals

It was a common practice for gentlemen to leave the navy within a few months after they had gone to sea from a naval hospital. This was detrimental to the navy in the highest degree; and to prevent it, the bond was imposed on those appointed to hospitals for one year's duty.

This has nearly cured the evil, but the service must be bad indeed when medical men require to be bound, during their unsuspecting novitiate, to serve an apprenticeship, as it were, - to do duty at sea for five years.

If the ward-room were the mess of the assistant-surgeons, this bond would not be required. The difficulty then would be in the number of applications for sea-service.

Having exposed the system by which young medical men are secured to the service, I beg you to notice the matter in Parliament, when you have an opportunity.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

F.J. Brown M.D. Lond. & Ed.,
Assistant Surgeon.
H.M.S. "Howe," Bay of Naples,
March 6, 1849.

The Lancet, 1849, vol II, page 210:


To the Editor of THE LANCET.

Sir,- Numerous as have been the communications on the treatment of the naval assistant-surgeons, there yet remain some facts which have not hitherto appeared, and I feel it incumbent upon me to give them publicity, in order to deter my younger professional brethren from entering a service in which they will never be treated as gentlemen, and will be exposed to continual annoyances, so long as the ward-room rank, with its accompanying privileges, is denied them.

After having served between six and seven years in the navy, and then finding myself unable to obtain that promotion which I considered myself entitled to, rather than return to a midshipman's berth I resigned my commission, and gave up all my claims on the service; and although, in a very complimentary letter from the then secretary of the Admiralty, I had the offer of again having my name placed on the list of medical officers of the Royal Navy, I refused, unless under a promise of immediate promotion.

As you, Sir, have so warmly advocated the case of the naval assistant-surgeons, I have taken the liberty of inclosing the accompanying truths, in the hope that you may find them of sufficient importance to give them, at your leisure, a place in your valuable and widely circulating periodical, and by so doing you will oblige, Your most obedient servant,


Naval Assistant-Surgeons, & Naval Medical Officers in General.

1. Ages at which the different junior officers are eligible, by the Queen's regulations, for ward-room rank: - Mates at nineteen; assistant-surgeons at twenty-three; second masters at twenty-one; clerks at twenty.

2. Average period of service in each of the above capacities, between April 1846, and April 1849, before being entitled to the ward-room rank by promotion: - Mates, two years and four months; assistant-surgeons, eight years and four months; second masters, five years and six months; clerks, eight years and eight months.

3. An Admiralty reason against ward-room rank.- One of the junior lords of the present board of Admiralty considers that the service would suffer by removing the assistant-surgeon into the ward-room, inasmuch as he, being generally the senior in the gun-room, or berth, is asked by the captain of the ship to be the caterer of the midshipmen's mess, and consequently becomes responsible for the payment of bills, and thereby preventing the midshipmen and naval cadets from being too extravagant, which they in all probability would otherwise be. A flag captain, now employed, when asked by the assistant-surgeon of the ship if he had heard that ward-room rank had been given to the assistant-surgeons, as mentioned in the Nautical Standard in the early part of 1848, replied, that he fully expected to hear of it officially in a day or two, but at the same time would regret it much, as what then would become of the midshipmen's messes?

4. The officer commanding the marines on board each ship is instructed by their lordships not to allow his men to act as servants to the officers; and although it is "winked at" on board most ships, yet in some it has been enforced, and the young gentlemen (assistant-surgeons included) are consequently obliged to attend upon themselves.

5. Employment when a surgeon.- After being promoted to the rank of surgeon, it is generally difficult to obtain an appointment; few being called upon in less than eighteen mouths, and between each three years commission an interval of two or three years occurs before being again employed, and during this time he is on half-pay, which is not taken into consideration for a retiring pension.

6. Retiring pension.- In consequence of the difficulty in obtaining an appointment when a surgeon, few succeed in being placed on the retired list of surgeons, and there are now twenty-two only. For the fifteen shillings a day retirement, it is required that he should have served thirty years. In the army the retirement is higher, and can be obtained if he chooses to serve that number of years.

7. Unless the assistant-surgeon is employed in a line-of-battle ship, and there are twenty one only in commission, including half-manned flag and depot ships, the improvement of professional knowledge is impossible; and nearly every naval medical officer, after being in the service some years, feels that he is less qualified to practise his profession than when he first entered it.

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