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William Beatty’s account of Horatio Nelson’s Post Mortem, 1805

Posted by Michael Crumplin, on October 21st, 2021

Abstract

This post presents an account of the post mortem carried out on Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, written by William Beatty, surgeon on board HMS Victory. At these times, post-mortems were carried out by surgeons, since the speciality of pathology had not yet evolved. Clearly, a post-mortem will determine a cause of death and often, the presence of unsuspected disease or other injuries. These examinations were often carried out as part of a teaching regimen for students or aspiring junior surgeons. Thus, as was usual practice, on the 10 December, Dr Beatty the ship’s surgeon, performed the post-mortem on board Victory. He was assisted by Arthur Devis, who had come on board at Spithead. Dr William Beatty (1773-1842 – later, Sir William) was an Ulsterman – from Derry. He trained in either Glasgow or London before being examined by the Court of Examiners of the London Company of Surgeons in 1791. Passed as fit to serve in the Royal Navy, he soon was promoted to first surgeon’s mate in the 32-gun frigate Hermione, on the very day war was declared on Revolutionary France, 1 February 1793. During a colourful, successful and active career, he passed as a full ship’s surgeon in 1795. Ultimately, he was appointed ship’s surgeon to Victory in December 1804, replacing another Ulsterman. In later life, Beatty gained an MD and was appointed Physician of the Channel Fleet. A champion of vaccination, he was elected FRS, became a Royal Physician and a wealthy man – he was knighted in 1831.

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