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 'Physician to the Fleet' by Brian Vale & Griffith Edwards 
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Post 'Physician to the Fleet' by Brian Vale & Griffith Edwards
I posted this review on another forum but copy it here as I am sure many members here will find it of interest


Physician to the Fleet: The life & Times of Thomas Trotter 1760-1832' by Brian Vale and Griffith Edwards, (The Boydell Press 2011)

The Scots use the term ‘a man o’ pairts’ to describe someone, usually from a humble background, who, through his own talents and industry, makes his way up in the world. Such a one was Thomas Trotter, a baker’s son from Roxburghshire, whose rich and varied life is rescued from undeserved obscurity in this admirable biography by Brian Vale and Griffith Edwards.

A bare outline of Trotter’s career leaves one awed: a Doctor of Medicine of the University of Edinburgh, both then and now one of the most distinguished medical faculties in the world; a humble naval surgeon who rose from medical officer on a slave ship to be Physician to the Fleet, admired by luminaries such as Howe and Nelson, who made an enormous contribution to the health of the fleet through controlling typhus, introducing Jenner’s vaccination for smallpox; and perhaps most important of all, who played a major role in conquering scurvy, that curse of the seafarer’s life. In addition, on retiring from naval service, he wrote papers on various aspects of health and well-being, not least a work on alcoholism which was ground-breaking in his perception of the condition as a disease of dependency rather than a moral failing. Not content with that, throughout his life he was a prolific writer of poetry and published a volume of his collected works.

However, the authors, by the most diligent research, have not only brought into the light a remarkable and distinguished life, they have also deepened and enriched their work by contextualising Trotter’s experience and achievements within a thorough and fascinating exposition of each sphere he found himself in as he progressed through life: thus, his experience at Edinburgh University is seen against the background of the Scottish Enlightenment, that remarkable flowering north of the border that enriched Britain’s intellectual and philosophical life; his service on a slave ship - an experience that made him a convinced abolitionist - serves as a microcosm of the horrors of the larger trade; his achievements in dramatically reducing disease in the fleet are an opportunity to paint a broader picture of the difficulties of managing disease on board ships and to emphasise how much the improved health of the fleet contributed to the effectiveness of the Royal Navy as a superb fighting machine that continually thwarted Napoleon’s maritime ambitions. Most enlightening of all, perhaps, is the authors’ enthralling investigation into the conquest of scurvy, and Trotter’s role in it. As they rightly say in their conclusion to their chapter on the subject, ‘a radical adjustment of the traditional version of events is called for.’

Trotter’s post-naval life is also thoroughly explored and his writings, both poetic and medical, are examined with a judicious blend of sympathy and detachment.

Trotter left no journals that give insight into the private man. Where there are gaps in the evidence, the authors’ speculations and deductions are always intelligent, credible and firmly rooted in what is already known. They have painted a convincing portrait of a fascinating figure: a devoted doctor, who not only cared for his patients individually, but who used detailed observation to make valuable deductions as to how disease in general should be managed, and whose conclusions were frequently remarkable for their foresight. Long before the discovery of vitamins for example, he wrote this about treating scurvy: ‘we contend that vegetable matter imparts a ‘something’ to the body [that] fortifies it against disease’. He was a man with a justified pride in his achievements that sometimes led to prickliness when he felt undervalued; a ferocious defender of his professional jusgements when they came under challenge;and a devoted husband who wrote a touching epitaph for his young wife, dead at 29. Excerpts from his letters and writings reveal a man of intelligence and conviction and a professionalism that combined both pride and humility: ‘The reader may smile at the Physician of the Fleet attending the stalls at a vegetable market or perambulating the country to acquire produce; but it never appeared to me beneath the dignity of the profession; nor did I consider it a mean task to serve the salad with my own hands from the Charon’s quarterdeck.’

All in all, this is an engrossing book. This biography of Dr Trotter has all the virtues of scholarship such as meticulous research and a sure grasp of the period in general together with an excellent command of all the disparate material relating specifically to their subject matter, but none of the vices such as turgidity and dryness. There is a wealth of factual information but it is presented in a style that is both lucid and elegant and the whole work is beautifully paced, with interesting digressions that provide an illuminating background to Trotter's life and never interfere with the main thrust of this amazing narrative. Highly recommended.


Wed Jan 19, 2011 9:57 am
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