Health and Medicine at Sea
There are doctor's memos and captains' logs telling about illnesses and accidents which occurred at sea. On some ships, medical officers took care of the passengers and crew who were unfortunate enough to become ill or have an accident. On many ships, the captain took care of the patients. Sometimes there was also a ship's doctor called the Surgeon Superintendent, who was the ship owners' representative onboard.
In the crowded area where passengers spent most of their hours aboard, conditions became very unsanitary. It was difficult to keep clean. Clothes were not washed very often, and over the months of travel, illnesses, which resulted from these conditions, were apt to spread from one person to another quickly and easily. Sometimes there was a doctor aboard, but he had few medicines effective enough to cure the illnesses that he encountered. If there was not a doctor aboard, the captain usually assessed the illness, and prescribed the medicine he thought appropriate. Most captains also kept the book, Medicine At Sea, aboard for consultation. Some of the patients survived the cures; otherwise, there was a quick burial at sea.
Compared to modern days, the practice of medicine was very primitive, and only made the patient comfortable. People of those early days received no inoculations to protect them from diseases. When the ships stopped in foreign ports to pick up new crewmembers, more passengers, food and water, the people aboard were exposed to diseases for which they had no immunity. Food handling methods might cause contamination. Their diet often lacked essential vitamins making them susceptible to disease.
It was quite common to be sick on the long three to four month voyages of ships like the Euterpe. That is not the case on a modern cruise ship. If you take a trip on a modern cruise ship, and you become ill, do not worry. There is a doctor on board to help you and a nurse in the ship's small hospital. They will make an appointment for you to see them, just as if you were at home. The hospital is fully equipped to take care of illness that might occur. Usually, the trips are short enough so chances are that no one will be sick on the trip. If a passenger becomes seriously ill, the ship's doctor can radio to shore for help and can speed them to the nearest hospital. The conditions on a modern cruise ship are sanitary, and the food is refrigerated, and cooked well.
The Role of Diet in Health at Sea
Fresh water was a necessity! Humans can survive longer without food than drinking water. Fresh water is needed for boiling foods because salt water from the sea has too high a salt content to be tasty or healthy. The further from land the saltier the water. This is due to freshwater rivers running into the sea, and diluting the salt with gallons of fresh water. During rain showers at sea, the sailors spread a canvas and funnel the fresh rainwater into tanks below.
Food on board had to last for at least 6 months because there was no electric refrigeration on the old sailing ships. Food preservation was a challenge for those in charge of keeping the food fresh, edible, and healthy. The passengers relied on canned foods, of which a limited variety was available. Meats were kept in salt for preservation, and may have tasted terrible. Some fresh foods, such as potatoes, could be kept for long periods in a dark, cool, dry place. If supplies ran low, the ships stopped in a port along their way, and picked up some foods. Remember, "convenience" stores where they could buy a hamburger and french fries did not exist.
Here is a list of allowances of food for each adult passenger for a week. (We assume that the children had a smaller amount because they ate less than their parents did.) This is a list for 'tween decks or steerage passengers. The first class cabin passengers had the same amounts and menu of the captain and his officers with whom they ate their meals.
Food allowances for steerage:
|1-1/2 lb. preserved meat||1/2 lb. molasses|
|1-1/2 lb. salt beef||1/2 lb. raisins|
|1 lb. salt pork||6 oz. suet|
|3-1/2 lbs. biscuits||1/4 pint pickles|
|3 lbs. flour||1/2 oz. mustard|
|1-1/2 lbs. rice or oatmeal||1/2 oz. pepper|
|1/2 pint peas||2 oz. salt|
|1-1/2 oz. tea||21-qt. water (collected rainwater)|
|2 oz. coffee||lime juice (to prevent scurvy)|
On sailing ships such as Euterpe/Star of India there was one small kitchen called the galley. There was one cook who made three meals a day for as many as 400 passengers, and a crew. The cook had one helper, who served the meals to the ship's first class passengers, and officers. The rest of the passengers received the meals, and served them to each other. The cook and his helper bunked in a section near the galley, which was on the main deck. Galleys were located amidships because that was the most stable place to prepare foods.
The galley on a modern passenger ship is very large. A chief chef has many chefs working for him. Many of the chefs have a specialty; for instance, one may make very fancy desserts, another may specialize in fancy fish dishes, or foreign foods. In addition, many waiters serve meals in the main dining room three times a day. There are snack bars all over the ship where one may have a snack or a meal at any time. A large passenger ship's galley is stocked with enough food to serve 1200 to 1500 passengers for three weeks or more. When you compare this with the early ships, imagine how uncomfortable and deprived the early passengers were.