Syphilis and Fevers: Medicine at English Camp

The Surgeons of British Camp

Though the Royal Marines on San Juan Island never saw combat during the occupation, surgeons still had their hands full taking care of the men.

Medicine prior to the modern era was precarious. Infectious disease was poorly understood, anesthesia (other than whiskey) was uncommon, and doctors rarely washed before an operation. Surgeons did not widely use antiseptics until the release of Joseph Lister’s paper “Antiseptic Principle Of The Practice Of Surgery” in 1867.

During the twelve years of British Camp, four surgeons served with the Royal Marines. The camp’s hospital stood near the parade ground and held a total of four beds until funds requested by Captain William Delacombe allowed further construction on the building. Typically the British Camp hospital cared for patients with moderate conditions, often fever or broken limbs. Anything more serious was sent to the hospital at Esquimalt on Vancouver Island. Common conditions seen in the San Juan Island Royal Marines included rheumatism and paralysis, the latter which Esquimalt surgeon John Moss believed to be from a syphilitic infection. Mercury became the common treatment for syphilis, with the element produced in various forms such as pills, ointments, and even steam baths.

Visitors to British Camp can visit the hospital building where these men were treated and explore the lives of the mid-1800s British Royal Marines.