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Sir Gilbert Blane’s Letters Part 1: The West Indies Station, June 1780.

Posted by Graeme Barber, on January 3rd, 2021


This post is the first part of a three-part post presenting letters written by Gilbert Blane, one of the Royal Navy’s most prominent physicians of the eighteenth century, to the Admiralty’s Sick and Hurt Board.

Sir Gilbert Blane (1749-1834), has a considerable reputation as a reformer of naval health, especially in terms of preventative health measures and he has been hailed as ‘the father of naval medical science’. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh and, after qualifying, he was recommended to George Rodney, who appointed Blane as his personal physician to look after his health needs and those of his crew.

In 1779 Blane sailed with Rodney to the West Indies on board HMS Sandwich. He was swiftly promoted by Rodney, to the position of Physician to the Fleet in 1780 and served in that role for three years during the American Revolutionary War. He saw action in six naval battles against the French, most notably in the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782.

As Physician to the West Indies Fleet he is credited with transforming the health of the fleet and in 1781 published A short account of the most effectual means of preserving the health of seamen, which was sent to all surgeons in the fleet. This was followed in 1785 by a work expanding on his original ideas entitled Observations on the diseases of seamen. One of Blane’s most significant innovations was his demand for monthly returns from the surgeons of each ship and he used the statistics to demonstrate the state of naval health and to press for reforms.

Two months before Blane wrote his 1781 treatise, he composed a detailed sixteen page letter to the Sick and Hurt Board which is the first occasion where he fully outlined his ideas – though this letter has often been overlooked. It demonstrates clearly many of the themes that would pervade the rest of his career and service especially the focus on hygiene measures, cleanliness, ventilation and the importance of fresh fruit and vegetables in the diet of the sailor. Edited sections of this very long letter are reproduced in this post.

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