Treasure troves

Next week, I am leaving for London again. I’ve spent time in the big smoke before, first as a graduate student in 2006-2007, when I took the London Consortium’s MRes programme. In 2011, I spent three months as a research associate at the  Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL for my PhD. This time, I have won a research intern grant at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. So back to my old stomping grounds – although Greenwich feels very different from Bloomsbury. It’s a town in it’s own right. But enough for the memories now: I am going to the NMM to dig out some treasure troves.

Because that’s what the nine ship’s surgeons’ medicine chests from between 1750 and 1850 kept in the collections are to me. Of a few, we know that they were the possession of famous lieutenants or explorers; of others we know next to nothing. Looking at the beautiful photos on the NMM website, I wonder why they all look so different. Were they made to order, and do the make-up and fittings tell something about the status and preferences of the owner? Or were it navy superiors and expedition sponsors who decided what the chests looked like and contained? And what was in those stoppered bottles? The usual suspects, or materia medica especially chosen for the ailments common to battle or tropical climates? And if the ship’s surgeon found some indigenous cure in a faraway region, did he add it to his chest?

It is questions like these that I am going to try to answer in the five weeks I will spend at the NMM. And I already made a small start, reading up on British navy and colonial medicine in the period. I also checked whether there were any interesting documents relating to the NMM medicine chests in Dutch archives. At the University of Amsterdam Library Special Collections, I found a letter written by William Edward Parry (1790-1855), Arctic explorer, the owner of one of the medicine chests, in 1823, to his friend John Barrow (1764-1848).* Barrow was a statesman and explorer with a lifelong interest in the Arctic, but he also travelled the Cape of Good Hope extensively. You never know if there’s anything relevant to your project in such a document, so of I went.

Parry and Barrow, like many learned men of their time, shared an interest in collecting naturalia, as also shows from the letter in Amsterdam. Parry wrote the letter while recovering from an illness, and mainly discussed news from friends and family. In the P.S. however, he’s talking business again. Here he wrote:

“The key of the [Ferry’s] mineral chest is in my possession. I will send by the first opportunity. I trust the minerals & other specimens will not be plundered before they are described. I have reason to know that they were so on the last occasion, which induces me to mention it now.”

The underlining is in the original, so even though Barrow was a good 25 years his senior, Parry makes it clear he is not one to be messed with. There was nothing about medicine chests in this letter, but it is an indication of the kind of man Parry was – I can’t wait to find out more about him and his medicine chest!

*Call number: UB: HSS-mag.: TOA hs. 128 Ar 1-2

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