Explore Your Archive: A Navy surgeon's journals from the Royal College of Physicians

By Rosemary Collins, 23 November 2017 - 9:47am

Rosemary Collins talks to Felix Lancashire of the Royal College of Physicians' archives about the journals of a 19th century Navy surgeon

A page from Theodore Preston's journal. Credit: Royal College of Physicians

Explore Your Archive is a campaign coordinated jointly by The National Archives (UK) and the Archives and Records Association (UK & Ireland), with and on behalf of the archives and records sector, across the UK and Ireland which aims to raise awareness of archives, their value to society and the impact they have, every day, on individual lives.

The campaign runs from Saturday 18 November to Sunday 26 November with archives all around the country putting on exhibitions, having open days, hosting seminars and talks and allowing communities to "explore" the amazing things they hold.

As part of the campaign, Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine has teamed up with The National Archives to bring you a week of interviews with some of the archivists taking part around the country to discover just a few of the fascinating historic gems they hold.

Today, Felix Lancashire, assistant archivist at the Royal College of Physicians' archives, tells us about a Royal Navy assistant surgeon's journals of his voyages.

What gem have you chosen?

I’ve chosen Theodore Preston’s journals from his time as a Royal Navy assistant surgeon.

From 1875-1876, Theodore served on the HMS Crocodile, a troop carrier making regular expeditions between Portsmouth and Mumbai. In 1877, he transferred to the HMS Achilles, an armoured warship patrolling the Mediterranean.

As assistant surgeon, it was Theodore’s duty to record in his Navy-issued journal the diseases affecting the crew and injuries sustained onboard, as well as weather conditions during the voyage, and the supply of food and medical provisions. He was kept busy treating a range of ailments such as diarrhea, incontinence, pneumonia, rheumatism, heart disease, and scurvy, as well as gruesome injuries including spinal damage, swollen testicles and a severed arm.

Why did you choose it?

I find these volumes exciting, as they are so evocative of the journey they have been on.

Even though the events they describe are often tumultuous, the journals themselves are incredibly neatly written and formatted, and I can imagine Theodore conscientiously writing them up in his cabin in the evening after a day of tending to the health of the crew.

The names, ages, and roles of the crew members Theodore treated are all recorded, so you get a strong sense of the people onboard and their experiences. For example, Theodore warily observed Lieutenant Matthew Abbott constantly swigging from his hipflask, eventually inducing an epileptic seizure, collapsing on deck, and having to be put off the ship. 18-year-old William Reynolds spent 58 days on the ‘sick list’ after a cannonball rolled over his foot; despite occasional oozing, William “never experienced any pain in the foot, always slept well, and enjoyed his meals”.

Nurses with a guy
The covers of the journals. Credit: Royal College of Physicians

Tell us more about your archive...

Since it was founded in 1518, the RCP has kept records of its activities and collected records of the lives of individual physicians and patients.

We’re lucky to still have some of our earliest records, as, during the Great Fire of London in 1666, our librarian Christopher Merrett rescued our founding charter, committee minutes and other key documents as our building was consumed by flames.

Among our oldest records are grants for the upkeep of a hospital in Kent from 1280, and 13th century Arabic medical manuscripts.

Our collections include 19th century reports on healthcare practices around the world, chemist shop inspection registers, and correspondence of famous doctors such as William Harvey and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

We hold the personal papers of doctors who treated kings and queens, and those who worked in prisons and workhouses.

If your ancestor was a physician (a specialist in medicine rather than surgery), there’s a good chance their name appears in our annals. Our records are available to anyone, and our catalogue can be searched online.



Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is the name for a group of lung conditions that affect roughly 175 million people around the world. World COPD Day is an awareness-raising campaign that happens to fall during Explore Your Archive launch week, and the RCP is marking this by displaying some of its archival records relating to lung health over the last 400 years in a new exhibition, ‘Breathtaking Archives: People and Practice in Lung Health’, on 23 November.

Visitors will get the chance to handle documents such as a 17th century family recipe book containing instructions for making cock ale, a cure for consumption (tuberculosis), Edward Jenner’s dissection casebook, and cuttings volumes showing positive and negative reactions to the RCP’s 1962 report about the effects of smoking. On display will be spectacular postmortem illustrations of the bodies of patients with lung diseases, photographs of early use of ‘iron lung’ machines, and reports relating to the health of coalminers. Visitors will also get the chance to go behind-the-scenes with archive staff to see where records are stored and how they are cared for.

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