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In the 16th century most ships did not have a doctor on board. The best a sick or injured sailor could hope for was the assistance of his fellow shipmates or the barber-surgeon, who provided medial treatment, gave hair cuts and performed the periodical tooth extraction when needed.

The barber-surgeon, the 16th century’s answer to medical treatment on ships, may have been trained in the preparations of unguents and balms for open wounds and illnesses such as the pox, immobilization and splinting of fractures and dislocations which were common on a sailing ship of the period. He had a variety of tools or instruments such as bleeding bowls, amputation knives, bandages, powers, herbs, resins, urethral syringes, linen towels to wipe of and clean tools of the trade and surfaces, and other items that completed his kit.

Many of the worst injuries including lethal gunshot wounds from battle were treated right away by cauterization or amputation. Worse injuries and even lethal were those from gunshot wounds and other wounds from battle. Amputation, the procedure of removing and damaged arm, leg, foot or hand, had to be done quickly because there was no anesthesia available and because of serious bleeding during the operation. Some patients did not survive the amputation operation Postoperative infection was always a problem for those patients who did survive the procedure. Any internal injuries and bleeding from injuries sustained in combat led to death. The barber-surgeons could do nothing but they could suture intestines and sometimes repair depressed fractures to the skull.

During the 16th century, manuals were printed and available that provided instructions for treatments and compounds for oils, ointments, syrups, and pills that could be used to the treatment of patients. Some of these compounds were very simple to the complex. One example is a mixture of oil of poppy combined with egg to treat a skin infection. Other unguents could require two days to prepare.

Butter was thought to easy pain and used on burns. This is something that is not encouraged. Oils from the butter will actually make the burn worse. The on board would-be-doctor treated headaches and coughs with peppercorn and mustard seeds.

Sometimes the barber-surgeon had pre-rolled bandages soaked in colophony oil (made from pine resin) that could be used for bandaging flesh wounds. The bandage would often be stitched to the skin because medical tape and ace bandages had not been invented yet. Another treatment for open wounds such as those from gunshots, was cauterization to stop the flow of blood.

Medical treatment on board ships in the 16th century was crude at best. Most likely, a sailor was lucky to survive a serious illness or injury. As time past and improvements were made, ships would eventfully have medical doctors on board.

(Information for the above from:
Shipboard Medicine on 16th Century English Warships: Medical Practitioners and their Equipment.

To learn more about medical treatment on board 16th century ships please visit:

Shipboard Medicine on 16th Century English Warships: Medical Practitioners and their Equipment.


Health and Life Onboard.

Tim Lambert. “The Tudor Warship MaryRose."

Health in the 17th Century.



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