Pirates were a tough bunch for a reason. In between the rum-swilling and marauding, they had to deal with health issues and illnesses without the benefit of an emergency room and antibiotics. Pirates aboard the Whydah suffered from diseases virtually non-existent today, undergoing horrific surgeries just to survive. Life and death, sickness and health on the seas are part of the Real Pirates! exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science through Feb. 6.
Pirates couldn’t rely on the Food Pyramid to help them get their required fruits and veggies and as a result, they were plagued with scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C.
“Pirates had bleeding gums, their teeth fell out, bones atrophied ... it was a slow death,” curator HMNS David Temple explained. “Eating citrus fruit and sauerkraut was the cure.”
The lack of basic cleanliness made pirates ill as well. Food poisoning was common and pirates would eat charcoal to deal with the effects of spoiled food. Left untreated, food poisoning would lead to death. Ships were rampant with rats and fleas and pirates were often attacked by brazen rats possessive of a ship’s nooks and crannies.
“Pirates would describe “The Itch” which we would call scabies after being bitten by rats and fleas. Pirates hated the job of periodically sweeping the ship free of rats,” Temple said.
Without regular showers and lack of clean clothing, pirates wore their clothes until they were nothing but rags, and the same was true for bandages covering wounds. Temple said pirates didn’t
make the connection
between clean bandages and avoiding infection, so the vicious cycle of sickness continued. Dysentery, an inflammatory disorder of the intestine and tuberculosis, an infectious disease of the lungs, were among other common and fatal diseases pirates developed.
Rolling cannons, falling cargo and general dangers of invading other ships often led to broken bones and internal injuries. Dealing with those fell to the ship’s surgeon, a highly valuable role within the pirate community. Captured ships with a surgeon on board were immediately added to the pirate roster — whether the surgeon wanted to be or not.
They were considered artists and forced to go pirate. However if the ship was later captured by authorities, doctors would often be absolved since it was assumed they were forced into the role.
“They got a special pass and were paid more,” Temple said.
A surgeon’s job was no cakewalk. The sickbay was in the bow of the boat and very poorly ventilated. This was where a surgeon would perform amputations and the poor pirate losing a limb did so without anything more than a strong swig of alcohol.
“Bullets would shatter bones and the surgeon knew he had just 10 minutes to amputate before pirate would die,” Temple said. “The surgeon used a saw to cut off an arm or leg and stop the bleeding.” Surgeons used a hot broad axe to cauterize what was left of the limb. And the ships that weren’t fortunate enough to have a surgeon on board? The task fell to the ship’s carpenter or cook.
The Whydah’s surgeon, James Ferguson, was one of the few who went on the account willingly. A fugitive from Scotland, Ferguson sought refuge on the ship after a failed revolt against the English Crown.
Despite the excitement of pirate life, sickness and death were common on ships. For a closer look, don’t miss Real Pirates! at the Houston Museum of Natural Science through Feb. 6.