Ocean-Going Steamers, Disseminators of Disease
This article from 1884 in The British Medical Journal described the working conditions of the ship's sergeons.
The letter from Dr. Irwin, formerly of Manchester, and now of New York, which we published on May 24th, calls renewed attention to a subject often discussed in these columns. At the present time, if protection governs the commercial policy of the United States, we have at least free trade with them in disease; and there can be little doubt that small-pox and other infectious diseases have been carried on several recent occasions from the Old World to the New.
Dr. F. H. Blaxall's report on the "Sanitary Aspects of Emigration and Immigration from and into the United Kingdom" throws some light on the question. It would appear from this report that, even in the best lines, the accommodation is insufficient. Hospitals for infectious cases were only found in a few ships on the weather-deck, and even then in many cases they were situated oh a part of the deck much frequented by the steerage-passengers, and were very ill ventilated.
Dr. Blaxall reports that the hospitals for ordinary cases were usually situated on the upper passenger-deck, and were generally well lighted and ventilated, but that, unfortunately, the key of the hospital was in the hands of the steward. There is, top, good reason for believing that first-class passengers, ship's stewards, and other members of the crew, are frequently accommodated in the hospital.
This is a distinct contravention of the provisions of the Passengers' Act (s. 24), and is also an index of the little authority left in the hands of the surgeon.
This important officer is generally overworked and underpaid; he is the mere nominee of the, owners with no rights or; privileges beyond those which they choose to, confer upon him, and with no claims beyond those contained in a contract carefully worded; in the owners' interest; he is treated, indeed, with but little consideration.
The ships surgeon is provided with very inferior accommodation, "not calculated," says Dr. Blaxall, "to invite the services of desirable men, being altogether out of keeping with the responsible position the surgeon holds in the ship as entrusted with the care of the health of hundreds of men, women, and children. In some cases, he has to stow himself away in the dispensary, surrounded by medicines and drugs, having no other place to sleep in.
In other ships, the cabin allotted to him is small, dark, and badly situated;" so that it is a matter of great difficulty for him to keep proper records of cases of sickness occurring on board, records which are of the utmost importance, especially to the people of the United States.
We have transcribed the above words from the report to the Local Government Board, because the deliberate report of an unimpassioned official contains expressions as strong as any which have been used, and comes with an authority which other utterances must lack.
It seems to have been abundantly proved that the time has come when England and America ought to combine together to form a marine medical service of competent men, responsible, not to the owners, but to the Governments of the two countries. The carrying trade is largely in the hands of England, and it behoves her to stir herself to remedy this glaring evil; otherwise, the United States will be fully justified in taking the matter out of her hands altogether, and that shortly.
OCEAN-GOING STEAMERS AS DISSEMINATORS OF DISEASE. The British Medical Journal, 7 June 1884, Page 1100