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Reviewed by:
  • Physician to the Fleet: The Life and Times of Thomas Trotter 1760-1832
  • Carin Berkowitz, Ph.D.
Brian Vale and Griffith Edwards. Physician to the Fleet: The Life and Times of Thomas Trotter 1760-1832. Woodbridge, UK, The Boydell Press, 2011. xii, 235 p., illus. $99.00.

To tell the story of Thomas Trotter, as Brian Vale and Griffith Edwards propose to do, is clearly a significant undertaking. It amounts to writing a [End Page 333] history of medicine, a military history, and a social and political history of Georgian Britain, as well as the history of an individual man. Trotter himself serves as both an exceptional and an ordinary (representative) man alternately in their account. He was notable for his work on scurvy, typhus, and drunkenness as well as for his testimony on slavery before the House of Commons Select Committee on the Slave Trade and his recommendations regarding the management of the navy. But Trotter also serves as a relatively typical example of a navy doctor, making the generalizing title Physician to the Fleet an appropriate one. Vale and Edwards follow Trotter from medical school in Edinburgh through his career in the navy, from the position of surgeon's mate on the HMS Berwick to that of second physician at the Haslar Naval Hospital, to the Physician of the Channel Fleet, with a brief interlude on a Slaver and eventual work in civilian practice in Newcastle. In doing so, they trace the evolution of his scientific and medical theories and of his attempts to address social problems such as the abhorrent condition of slaves on ships (an argument for abolition), hospital reform, and naval hierarchy, discipline, and pay. They construct the biography using Trotter's own accounts as well as conjecture about what Trotter might have seen or how he might have felt, something that implies that Trotter's experience was like those of other such men and could be deduced from their accounts.

The appropriateness of the authors' partnership is made clear in the vast historical terrain that they attempt to cover and for which they need to provide background. The reader is given a general history of naval warfare and naval politics and practices, of the abolition movement, of Georgian politics, and of medicine, the last of these encompassing basic overviews of medical education and therapeutics during the period, but also histories of maladies like scurvy, typhus, drunkenness, and "nervous temperament." As the popularity of Patrick O'Brian's novels have long suggested, the British navy of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century can be both an interesting and exciting subject of inquiry. And this book provides one such inquiry, taking as its angle a much-needed exploration of the relationship between medicine and warfare. Yet the breadth of the book, the background covered and the tone of it, make it slightly unclear, at least to me, exactly what audience the authors envision for their book.

The work is, at times, speculative, and the authors describe Trotter as "the hero of our story" (3), while at others it assumes the character of a detailed military history of the sort that might be more appropriate to a specialized, expert audience. There are reasonably long passages taken directly from both the testimony of Trotter and that of Captain Clement Noble, the master of the ship to which Trotter was assigned, before the House of Commons Select Committee. Ultimately, the book seems to [End Page 334] give somewhat uneven weight to naval history and history of medicine, despite the argument at the outset that Trotter is worth focusing on in part because "he played an important role in bringing about the health improvements that helped turn the Fleet into the devastating fighting machine which routed the French at Trafalgar . . . [and] became a forward-looking thinker and a prolific writer on non-naval medical problems" (ix). Battles, and the assessment of their outcomes, are thoroughly described and contextualized. What we now take to be mistaken medical theories, however, are sometimes dismissed too quickly and easily. The last few chapters, those dealing with Trotter's purely medical pursuits, are less rich and more summary in nature, and seem...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4373
Print ISSN
0022-5045
Pages
pp. 333-335
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-14
Open Access
No
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