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The Surgeon’s Mate by John Woodall (1617)

Posted by Michael Crumplin, on April 15th, 2021


The Surgeon’s Mate (1613) by John Woodall is of national importance since it was the first book written in any language for the instruction of ships’ surgeons. This post presents an extract from the book’s introduction of the ‘Offices and Duties’ of the surgeon.

John Woodall was born in 1570 in Warwickshire. Around the age of 16, he was apprenticed to a barber-surgeon and, after three years or so, he served as a surgeon in Lord Willoughby’s Regiment, fighting a religious war in Northern France. After this he worked in Poland and Germany for around eight years. On his return, in 1599, he was Admitted to the Worshipful Company of Barber-Surgeons in the City of London. For the next fourteen years, Woodall studied alchemy, went on an ambassadorial trip to Poland and Russia, treated victims of the Great Plague of 1603 (also in 1625 and 1636), and was married in 1605. He survived two bouts of infection with bubonic plague. He gained the useful patronage of Sir Thomas Smith, Governor of the East India Company. Soon attaining a reputation as a surgeon, administrator, linguist, ambassador and chemist. In 1613, he was elected Surgeon General to the East India Company and three years on, he was appointed a consulting surgeon to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. It was the year following this that he wrote The Surgion’s Mate. His later career was embellished by being elevated to Master of his livery company, further publications on surgery and the plague and being elected as an examiner of military and naval surgeons. He died in London in 1641, aged 73, suffering poor memory and eyesight. John Woodall was a competent and respected practitioner of his times, of religious and modest disposition, he proved to be a worthy public servant.

The experience in both military and naval medical service and including being the supervisor of medical chests for the Navy and Army, put Woodall in a commanding position to write this textbook for seafarers.

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