A colleague here at BHS recently informed me that the National Archives of the UK has made its collection of Royal Navy surgeons’ journals entirely accessible online. This immediately reminded me of a small collection of nautical journals that the CLIR team recently uncovered, in which a ship’s surgeon is also featured, only not quite in the way you’d think. The journals were kept by Henry W. Dodge, a New Yorker who served on a number of highly-publicized expeditions to explore the Arctic before passing away suddenly in a saloon on Fulton Street in 1874. His journal kept aboard the schooner United States from 1860 to 1861 often reads like a nautical adventure novel, but the most memorable passages are those containing Dodge’s musings on the character of the ship’s surgeon, Dr. William Longshaw, which can only be described as pure entertainment.
At first sight, something about the doctor simply rubbed Dodge the wrong way. On one of the very first pages of his journal (below), Dodge betrays his initial impressions of Dr. Longshaw, describing him as “a kind of nondescript, neither man nor monkey,” going on to complain that “he entered with us almost at the last hour and came aboard without a second shirt on his back. I will not judge him yet, trusting that he may not be as disagreeable as he looks.”
As the voyage went on, though, Dodge found Dr. Longshaw to be even more disagreeable than he looked, as he reveals in the page below. Apparently Dodge was not alone in his opinion: “Radcliffe managed to get up a laugh at the expense of ‘the doctor,’ an ignorant, conceited, pompous, selfish, dirty and generally disagreeable burlesque upon humanity, who has made himself obnoxious to us all. His gluttonous habits have afforded us much amusement … when we rise from the table and go on deck after dinner for ‘a smoke’ or promenade he stays in the cabin, to eat up whatever fragments of pie or pudding remain from the dessert, and it is a particular amusement of the boys to run down below for the purpose of annoying him while at his supplementary repast. This morning when all hands were called, he was the last one to come up, and before the others had taken their seats again, he was at his post, eating as if he never expected to get another meal; having however first exchanged his plate for Radcliffe’s, on which there happened to be a larger piece of ham, than he had been helped to. Radcliffe noticed the exchange, and after breakfast, told the story in the Dr.’s presence, who winced a little, but said nothing. The by-word now is, ‘Who stole the ham?’”
And it just gets worse from there. Dodge’s description (below) of an incident in which Dr. Longshaw fires off the evening salute is particularly unforgiving: “‘Our doctor’ who delights to make himself both disagreeable and ridiculous, thinks that he became immortalized by firing the salute with our three pound gun, last night. When it was loaded, he asked permission of me, to let him, ‘touch it off,’ which I readily granted, hoping that it would blow his fingers off at least. After finishing the salute, he strutted off with more pomposity than a militia captain on a field day, and paced the quarter deck furiously, dilating to anyone who would listen upon his dangerous duty and the gallant manner in which it was performed.”
And only a few days later: “Had a quiet row with the Doctor for interfering with my duties … He had not spirit enough to resent insults, and as cruelty to animals is not one of my failings, I did not strike him this time, but after abusing him to my heart’s content, left him with the comforting assurance that I would grind him to powder, if he ever dared again to interfere with anything aboard of the vessel excepting pills, and powders.” (Below).
Dr. Longshaw departed the ship in Upernavik, a small coastal town in Greenland, only a little over a month after the voyage began (Dodge hints that the doctor was, more or less, “voted off the island”). Dodge’s description of the doctor’s final day aboard the ship (below) leaves no room for sentimentality: “This afternoon we had to dinner a company, composed of the aristocracy … and least of all, our late doctor who is going home by the way of Denmark. Seeing the guests coming aboard, he made an excuse to drop in so that we could not help inviting him. We tolerated his presence as patiently as possible, knowing that it would be the last we should see of him, and that it was the last good dinner he would have for some weeks to come, as they have hard fare aboard of the Danish brig. From what I have previously said about him, it may be imagined that none of us were sorry at parting with him. He intends to write a book, in which I suppose he will give the world his opinion of us.”
I’ve not been able to find out whether this book was ever published, but it would certainly be interesting to read what Dr. Longshaw thought of Dodge! Chances are the doctor wasn’t quite as buffoonish as Dodge makes him out to be; judging from the entirety of Dodge’s journal entries, he seems to have been one of those perennially cranky seafaring types who rarely said anything nice about anyone. Or perhaps he was rejected from med school once, and had a special resentment reserved for doctors? Whatever the real story, Dodge’s journal offers unexpected comic relief and quite the wellspring of archaic insults, in addition to revealing glimpses into life at sea.