© Duane A. Cline 2001
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John Woodall (1570-1643)
The Surgeon's Mate, written by John Woodall and first published in 1617, was the first textbook in any language for the guidance of ship surgeons on long oceanic voyages. Unique when it was published, The Surgeon's Mate is neither a comprehensive surgical nor a complete medical treatise, but a textbook to guide novice surgeons and inexperienced surgeons who might be expected to treat medical and surgical emergencies peculiar to ships far from land for prolonged periods of time and under tropical conditions. Although Woodall's text was written chiefly for young sea surgeons, it was addressed to a much wider readership because of its treatises on gunshot wounds, gangrene and the plague. The book gained immediate success and was reprinted in 1639, 1653 and 1655. Because it was so universally used by ship surgeons sailing around the world, most of the copies were worn out or lost at sea in the course of time and only eleven copies are now known to exist.
Its contents are divided into four main sections and concludes with a glossary of alchemist's terms in both verse and prose. Those main sections are:
1. A description of the instruments and medicines recommended for the surgeon's chest with indication for their use.
2. Short notes on acute surgical problems including wounds, gunshot injuries, bowel obstruction, procindentia ani and on the operations of trepanning and amputation.
3. A discussion of the lethal medical conditions including dysentery, entritis, worm infestation, contagious fever and a comprehensive account of scurvy.
4. A treatise on the sulfur, mercury and chemical symbols.
Woodall was a surgeon, medical administrator, Paracelsian chemist, businessman, linguist and temporary diplomat. With the publication of The Surgeon‘s Mate, we can add writer to his list of accomplishments. The book was written after Woodall was appointed Surgeon General to the East India Company. In that position he set the surgeon's chest with all its particulars into an order and method which had never before been undertaken.
Woodall, the son of Richard Woodall of Warwick, was probably apprenticed at the age of 16 or 17 to a London barber-surgeon, and therefore had not yet completed the normal seven years of training when he began his professional career as a surgeon to Lord Willoughby's regiment in 1589-90 at the age of nineteen. Lord Willoughby's regiment was dispatched by Queen Elizabeth to assist the protestant Henry IV of France and King of Navarre in his campaign against the Catholic League of Normandy.
Willoughby and his starving troops returned in 1590. Subsequently, Woodall lived and presumably worked professionally for eight years in Polonia and at Stoad in Germany [possibly Stade, a Hanseatic port near Hamburg], where he was engaged at least once by visiting English ambassadors as a German interpreter. In 1599 he returned to London for admission as a freeman of the Barber-Surgeons Company. He lived for a time in Holland, lodging with a Dutchman who made counterfeit medications.
By 1603 Woodall was in London, living in Wood Street during the plague epidemic, offering his extensive experience gained in Europe.
In 1604 James I sent an embassy to Poland and possibly to Russia, which included Woodall in the negotiating party, presumably for his knowledge of the region and command of language. The embassy was led by Sir Thomas Smith, Governor of the East India Company and afterwards Woodall's patron. In 1643 Sir Thomas Smith appointed Woodall to serve as Surgeon General to the East India Company. In this post his duties were described as follows: "The Said Chiurgion and the Deputy shall have a place of lodging in the Yard, where one of them shall give Attendance every working day from morning untill night, to cure any person or persons who may be hurt in the Service of this Company and the like in all their Ships, riding at Anchor at Deptford and Blackwell, and at Erith, where he shall also keepe a Deputy with his chest furnished, to remaine there continually untill all the said ships have sayled and appointing fit and able Surgeons and Surgeon's Mates for their ships and services, as also the fitting and furnishing of their Chests with medicines and other appurtenances thereto."
In spite of some disputes over the years, Woodall retained the Company's confidence for some 30 years. He also made sufficient money to dabble in business interests including the investment of 1,000 pounds in the East India Company in 1620 and the promotion of cattle exploration to and land investments in Virginia.
However, his good luck failed in 1625 when he served a writ on a King's servant, Sir Thomas Merry, who owed Woodall money. For his effrontery to royal privilege, the Lord Steward had Woodall committed to prison. He was released briefly at the request of the Company to supervise surgeon's chests for the next fleet, but was then jailed once more. His final release evidently followed an apology for his misjudgment.
Woodall's other appointments included election as surgeon to St. Bartholomew's Hospital in 1616, and the promotion in the Barber-Surgeons Company to examiner in 1626, warden in 1627 and master in 1633. At St. Bartholomew's he was a colleague of Sir William Harvey for whom he expressed the greatest respect on more than one occasion.
The year 1626 was noteworthy both for reform and Woodall's pocket: first, the Privy Council decided to pay the Barber-Surgeons Company fixed allowances to furnish medical chests for both the army and navy; and second, the Company requested Woodall to supervise their provision, in addition to his long-standing commitment to the East India chests. As a result he wrote, "...myselfe had the whole ordering, making and appointing of His Highnesse Military provisions for Surgery, both for his land and Sea-service." This undoubtedly led him to extend the appeal of the later editions of his book to include military and naval as well as merchant marine surgeons.
Despite his dismissal as Surgeon General to the East India Company in 1635 for economy reasons, he retained a monopoly on supplying the Company's medical chests until 1643, the year of his death at about the age of 73, presumably in London. Earlier he had contracted bubonic plague and survived, writing, "...for I had it twice, namely at two severall Plague times in my Groyne." Identification of these times is impossible, but he worked with plague victims in London during 1603, 1625 and 1636, and with plague victims in Germany and Poland.
Last modified February 7, 2001
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