The History Of First Aid And Medicine At Sea

By Steve Brand | September 15, 2019



The medical challenges of early sailing

Sailing a ship across broad expanses of ocean can, by its very nature, be an isolating experience. Many challenges might be presented, particularly when it comes to dealing with sickness and other medical emergencies. Huge advances have been made, both in terms of on-the-spot care and also the ability of airborne emergency services get to a ship when out at sea in order to evacuate patients.

However, modern methods of medical response and evacuation were not available to our sea going ancestors. People undertaking long sea voyages very much took their lives in their hands and could rely only on providence and good fortune when it came to maintaining good health at sea.

Two diseases of particular concern to sailors when crossing the world’s oceans in past times were scurvy and yellow fever. Scurvy being the most feared of them all. Scurvy is caused by a dietary deficiency of vitamin C. This unpleasant and dreaded disease began to decline after the British Royal Navy started issuing lime and lemon juice from 1795 but was still a problem when fresh provisions were unavailable for long periods.

The medical challenges of early sailing

As the Maritime Industry entered the modern age, on board medical care in relation to the navy and commercial shipping began to improve in tune with scientific medical development on dry land. Good medical care at sea became the norm - an expectation of people in general. Fictitious maritime doctors featured in many films as material for drama and comedy.

The crews of most cruise ships now include a dedicated medical doctor and purpose built medical facilities to deal with the sick and injured. These facilities vary greatly in their sophistication with the prime objective, whenever possible, being rapid evacuation in cases where individuals require intensive care or a surgical operation.

Hospital ships and the revolution in maritime medicine.

Many lessons have been learned since the days of sail and during periods of major conflict between the world’s great industrial powers. Militarised nations quickly learned the importance of deploying large scale medical facilities to treat and evacuate the casualties of battle.

What better way of transporting medical teams and facilities to the point of need than by sea? Medical ships became the order of the day and many large ships were converted for this purpose during the two major world wars.

What can work in military scenarios can also work for large scale civilian operations. Hospital ships also became an invaluable resource in combatting afflicted populations around the world in situations such as famine or natural disasters.

Medicine in the modern cruise industry

Modern cruise ships have evolved over time and achieved very high levels of sophistication. Advances in market pricing and the economies of scale have rendered the pursuit of ocean cruising open to a far broader social demographic. Passengers generally expect all the comforts of home while at sea and medical services are no exception.

Seductive sea views, all-you-can-eat buffets and the diverse range of activities and tours the modern-day cruise offers are a huge magnet. Cruise lines find themselves duty bound to assure their customers they will be as safe as possible when at sea. Therefore, great efforts are made to ensure adequate measures are put in place to cope with all possible medical emergencies.

Most cruise lines of good reputation ensure there is always at least one doctor and two nurses on board at all times. Larger cruise liners may well exceed this quota, carrying an even larger team.

Although very uncommon, it is not unknown for surgical operations to take place aboard large ships. Medical facilities on cruise liners are mostly out of sight of passengers so as not to interfere with the feelgood factor of sailing. Medical rooms and limited operating theatres are often present though, should an emergency demand they be put into action.

The primary aim of a ship’s medical team is to stablise the patient and arrange immediate evacuation to a hospital on land for treatment whenever possible.

How times have changed. The average modern sea worker or cruise line passenger can rely on levels of medical care unheard of by early sailors and pathfinders in the business of long distance, ocean going travel.

So much have the pioneers of martime medical care achieved over time that unnecessary deaths from disease and injuries at sea are now, thankfully, a rare occurence. We owe these innovators a huge debt of gratitude and many around the world literally owe them their lives.

Our Maritime Training Courses

Seahaven Maritime Academy, based at The Port of Newhaven in East Sussex, is the ideal establishment for Maritime Training at all levels. The links below will provide you with more information and specific links to our First Aid courses:-

RYA Courses
Professional Courses

If you would like further information then please feel free to get in touch.

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About The Author

Steve Brand
Managing Director

Steve is a highly experienced instructor with a long and impressive track record in safety-critical working environments. Training is much more than a job for him, it is a vocation and his dedication and care for his valued students is second to none.


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