Treating Mrs Chandler

From the brief details we have it is impossible to do more than guess at the nature of Mrs Chandler’s illness. The John Pirie diarist tells us that she complained of pains in her head and her side and that she was behaving very erratically before throwing herself overboard.  Despite the obvious trauma of a near suicide by drowning however, she seems to have recovered sufficiently to be capable of leaving her bed and walking about the deck, before she became ill again. In the absence of a surgeon on board, it is not clear who supervised her subsequent care, but it does seem as if the captain and officers did what little they could to help her.  That was not much and mostly consisted of trying to provide her with food that was thought at the time to help invalids.  They made gruel – a watery porridge – and also administered sago (a glutinous starch used in puddings), wine (regarded as a stimulant) and ‘medicine’. There is nothing to tell us what this ‘medicine’ might have been, but there were various proprietary mixtures available at the time. Some contained opium, others were simple purges.  There was a great preoccupation with maintaining ‘regularity’ – keeping the bowels open.

As Mrs Chandler’s condition continued to worsen, it was decided, it is not clear by whom, to bleed her. Once again this was common medical practice at the time, based on the belief that it would relieve ‘congestion’ in the blood, but it was also observed to leave patients drowsy and calm (or weak) and since we know that Mrs Chandler was often very agitated, this may have seemed like a good outcome. We don’t know either who took on the task, or how it was done, but the fact that our diarist was able to state that a precise amount of blood was taken (a half pint, or about 250 mls) suggests that a vein was punctured and blood run into a bowl or cup, rather than using leaches. It also suggests incidentally that the nature of her treatment was common knowledge on the ship.

Conditions on these ships were hardly conducive to careful nursing.  When confined to bed for long periods, people frequently developed bed sores, which added to their discomfort and may also have led to infection.  The final cause of death might have been something quite different from the original illness.  Certainly in its final stages Mrs Chandler seems to have been delirious at times, while we are told that ‘the smell of her Breath [was] uncommonly strong and most disagreeably sickening.’..The poor woman was also depressed (not surprisingly), and fearful, ‘respecting the future Welfare of her Soul’. It is clear from the account we have that she was in considerable pain right up to the moment of her death.

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