Ship’s Surgeons or Naval Surgeons are officers responsible for the health of the crew aboard a ship.
Although the position of naval doctor is very old, from medieval times to the early Age of Sail, naval surgeons were typically not very highly considered and not very well trained. Up to the mid-18th century, the position was commonly held or performed as an additional duty by carpenters, cooks or barbers with little additional training. It should be noted that this situation is not too different from the situation on land at the time; f.ex. barbers were commonly also dentists at the time. Ship’s doctors with medical degrees were rare and usually only those who had failed as doctors on land. This is probably at least part of the origin of the “drunk naval surgeon” stereotype.
During the 18th century, minimal requirements for naval surgeons started to be raised. Medical degrees were still rare (as they were on land), but surgeons were now generally trained by apprenticeship before joining a ship. A doctor with an actual medical degree would be called a physician. Surgeons were well-payed during this period and would receive a high share of any prize money. The position also became attractive to doctors with ambitions as explorers.
Surgeon’s mates might be apprentices, but could also be ordinary seamen the surgeon picked to assist him, especially if they happened to have some education.
Aboard the Obra Dinn
The Obra Dinn’s Surgeon during her last voyage was an Englishman named Henry Evans, who was among the few survivors of the trip, but died in Morocco, in 1808. He appears to have been a highly educated and widely travelled man. He kept a pet monkey and was in the possession of an interesting pocket watch, that he later passed on to the Honorable East India Company Chief Inspector.
His mate was an Englishman named James Wallace, who did not survive.