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Nelson's Doctors

Ian Fraser

Mr Ian Fraser MS, FRCS

In 1794 Captain Horatio Nelson declared in a letter to the Duke of Clarence: "One plan I pursue, never to employ a doctor-Nature does all for me and Providence protects me".
On Thursday, 25th April, Ian Fraser provided the Society with the results of his personal research into the medical history of England's greatest Admiral.
Ian's erudite presentation held the audience spellbound as he went through all of Nelson's medical ailments and injuries which necessitated at least 48 episodes where he needed medical help.
In common with most of the audience, I knew that Nelson had joined the Royal Navy aged 12, that he had had a glittering naval career ending up as an admiral with a knighthood, that along the way sustained several serious injuries and that he ended up in virtual disgrace because of his affair with Lady Hamilton.
Today he is upheld in the Royal Navy as one of the greatest sea warfare tacticians ever to have lived.
What Ian was able to do, as a result of his intensive research, was explain the roles of the three surgeons who had prolonged his life until that fateful day on 21st October 1805 when he sustained a severe injury that he could not survive.
In one hour we all became aware that our previous knowledge of the great man had been sparse indeed.
Thanks to Ian, the gaps were filled!

A Glorious Career

Between the ages of 12 and 29, while Nelson was learning his profession, he was subject to various medical and tropical ailments including the recurring fever of malaria that occurred right through his life, and also an episode of scurvy - Vitamin C deficiency.
From 29 to 35, Nelson was 'on the beach', with no ship, living in Norfolk.
Aged 35 to 47, it was battle trauma that he suffered - and this is where these three main physicians were so key in keeping him alive.
So ... who were they?
Michael Jefferson dealt with the injury that cost Nelson his right eye in 1794, when he was on the Island of Corsica attempting mount a land assault which failed.
In February 1797 Thomas Eshelby was the surgeon who diagnosed Nelson's traumatic abdominal hernia, caused by a blow to his abdomen by heavy gear on his ship.
He advised rest, which Nelson ignored.
Portrait of Nelson
In July 1797 Nelson was promoted to Admiral and knighted. His ship HMS Theseus was involved in at battle at Santa Cruz where a musket ball shot through his upper right arm. He was sure he would die.
"I am a dead man!", he cried.
A tourniquet saved him from exsanguinating and Eshelby amputated most of his right arm.
Post operative pain was such that Nelson had to return to England accompanied by Thomas Eshelby.
Michael Jefferson reappeared and he wrote letters for Nelson.
Eventually a piece of 'ligament' came off the stump and the pain went.
In March 1798 Nelson joined HMS Vanguard and took Michael Jefferson with him as his surgeon.
In August 1798, during the successful Battle of the Nile against the French, Nelson sustained a severe head injury which caused a 3” flap to flop across his forehead bleeding heavily.
Again Nelson thought that his end had come.
"I am killed!", he cried.
Portrait of Nelson
Jefferson realised the injury was not life threatening and used adhesives to put the flap back in place.
Nelson was so pleased to have survived that he arranged for Jefferson to be appointed to the hospital in Malta.
Unfortunately Jefferson disgraced himself in Malta, was dismissed his post and is not mentioned again.
It was in 1798 in Malta that the affair with Lady Hamilton began and Nelson turned his back on devoted wife Frances, who was in England.
Subsequent analysis of Nelson's behaviour at this time conjectures that he had sustained a brain injury causing a significant change in his character and behaviour.
George Magrath was Nelson's surgeon at this time and when he obtained a shore posting in Gibraltar he recommended William Beatty as his replacement.
It was William Beatty who tended to Nelson on the Orlop deck of HMS Victory when Nelson was shot by a sniper in the rigging of a French ship.
The musket penetrated his left chest, traversing though vital structures in his chest and transecting his spinal cord, taking with it a piece of gold and thread from Nelson's epaulette.
Yet again Nelson announced that he was dying and this time he was right.
The rest, as they say, is history.

The Immortal Memory

William Beatty put Nelson's body in a barrel of brandy to preserve it for the month long trip home once HMS Victory had had enough repairs to make her seaworthy.
Casualties were high at the Battle of Trafalgar.
There were 62 deaths and 109 wounded and William Beatty performed 11 amputations, 8 of whom lived to return to England.
Incredible in an age of no anaesthesia.
At his post mortem in England, performed by Beatty, the piece of gold was retrieved.
It was eventually made into a locket that Beatty wore for the rest of his life and is now in the keeping of the Queen.
Nelson's funeral took place at St Paul's on 9th January 1806.
It was shunned by a number of Admirals who were dismayed by Nelson's treatment of his wife Frances.
Beatty realised that an official account of Nelson's travails would take years to produce and so he wrote "An Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson".
Surely a canny move!
He carried on ashore with an impressive career dying a bachelor in 1842. He had been 32 years old at the Battle of Trafalgar.

The Surgeon in Nelson's Family

Ian's research led him to one more surgeon - Nelson's Grandson, Marmaduke.
Lady Hamilton had given birth to a daughter, Horatia, in 1801.
When Emma died, in straightened circumstances, in France in 1815, Nelson's siblings took over Horatia's upbringing.
She progressed into a lovely young woman who made a very happy marriage at the age of 21 to a Rev Philip Ward.
She had 10 children and one of them, Marmaduke, went on to become a surgeon in the navy.
He remained single and looked after his mother Horatia in her old age.
At the conclusion of Ian's talk, Dr Moris Watt gave the vote of thanks with the comment "Absolutely fascinating".

Review by David and Lorraine Roberts.