Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

John Woodall, author of The Surgeon’s Mate

John Woodall. Held by the UK National Portrait Gallery.

John Woodall was a seventeenth century English physician and Paracelsian chemist known for his writings on medicine and health. Born around 1570 in Warwickshire, he was apprenticed at the age of sixteen to a London barber surgeon but did not finish his apprenticeship. From the age of nineteen in 1589, he gained experience as a military surgeon supporting the Protestant Henry of Navarre in France against the Catholic League, then as a surgeon in Poland, and for eight years in a Hanseatic port near Hamburg, traveling extensively and becoming very experienced. After returning to England, he settled in London in the year of the plague (1602) and worked hard to effect a cure. He became a member of the barber-surgeons guild and in 1612 was appointed as the first Surgeon-General of the East India Company. In that capacity he spent time in the East Indies, observing native medical practices and studying tropical diseases. Not only did he show considerable administrative ability but also invested considerable sums of money. At various times during his career he wrote several surgical books, of which the most influential was The Surgeon’s Mate (1617).

This manual on medicine, surgery, and health maintenance aboard ships was the first of its kind and became the standard reference work for the English Navy. It was a groundbreaking manual that provided practical guidance to ship surgeons, apothecaries, and other medical practitioners serving onboard ships. It aimed to address the unique challenges and health concerns faced by sailors on long sea voyages, covering a wide range of topics such as how to prevent and treat diseases common among sailors such as scurvy, dysentery, and malaria. It particularly emphasized the value of supplying the “juices of oranges, limes, or lemons, wherever the ship touches land, which are better than any taken away from England.”1

Woodall considered scurvy a disease of the spleen, arising in sailors from the prolonged use of salted meats or fish and of impure water without aqua vitae or wine “to comfort and warme their stomackes.” He considered as additional risk factors the want of proper clothing, the practice of “not keeping their apparel sweete and dry,” and the ill-ventilation of their berths.1-3

The book, which went through a second edition in 1639, also had detailed instructions on performing surgical procedures, managing wounds, and using various medical instruments. Woodall emphasized the importance of maintaining hygiene, proper nutrition, and sanitation practices on ships to ensure the health and well-being of the crew.1,2

In 1616 Woodall was appointed surgeon at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital where he was a colleague of Sir William Harvey. He was promoted to examiner in the Barber-Surgeons Company in 1626, to Warden in 1627, and Master in 1633. He twice contracted plague and survived, and he invented in 1628 a special instrument for trephining the skull. He was involved in a series of financial transactions and legal disputes (discussed elsewhere4) and was briefly imprisoned for “having the effrontery to sue a servant of the king for money he was owed.” He worked in several capacities for the East India Company, and by 1639 complained that having run through the cares of 69 years, he found old age an enemy to study, “’my sight being weakened, my memory much impaired, and my capacity utterly unable to perform so hard a task’ as the continuation of the surgical treatises.”2 He died in 1643 at the age of seventy-three. He is likely to have been the first to have advocated the use of orange and limes for scurvy, though overlooked and forgotten by later historians.”3

Further reading

  1. Smart W. Notes on sea-scurvy. BMJ Nov 3, 1877, 618.
  2. Archeologica medica: VI. John Woodall: the status and pay of land and sea surgeons under the early Stuarts. BMJ March 17, 1894, 600.
  3. Keynes G. Oranges and lemons. BMJ Feb 16, 1963,
  4. Appleby JH. New light on John Woodall, surgeon and adventurer. Med Hist 1981;25:251.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Highlighted Vignette Volume 16, Issue 1 – Winter 2024

Summer 2023



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