Roamer: The remarkable medical men from Ulster served with the Royal Navy

Sir William Beatty
Sir William Beatty

Since Trafalgar Day on October 21, marked on this page with some accounts of the many Irishmen who served with Lord Nelson, other Ulster connections with Nelson and Trafalgar have been highlighted here.

Since Trafalgar Day on October 21, marked on this page with some accounts of the many Irishmen who served with Lord Nelson, other Ulster connections with Nelson and Trafalgar have been highlighted here.

There’ve been references to several of Nelson’s surgeons, from an article in the Ulster Medical Journal, an extremely interesting publication issued by the Ulster Medical Society.

Written in 2006 by R.S.J Clark, honorary archivist, Royal Victoria Hospital, the article spotlighted Ulster’s extraordinarily strong medical links with the Royal Navy over the centuries.

Editor John Purvis has very kindly allowed extracts to be reproduced here today, particularly about Nelson’s surgeons Leonard Gillespie from Armagh and Sir William Beatty from Londonderry.

Sir William’s first-hand account of attending to his immaculately unformed Vice-Admiral’s shattered, paralysed body on HMS Victory is tragic and chilling.

After he removed the sniper’s bullet from several inches below Nelson’s right shoulder “a portion of the gold lace and pad of the epaulette, together with a small piece of his Lordship’s coat, was found firmly attached to it” wrote Beattie in a medical manual that is both macabre and fascinating, detailing Nelson’s insistence on pacing through thick musket-fire along the canon-ripped deck of HMS Victory “in his uniform coat, which had all his orders and decorations conspicuously displayed.”

Dozens of crewmen died around him, and over 100 were wounded.

R.S.J. Clark comments poignantly “a surgeon could acquire more surgical experience during one naval battle than he would require during the remainder of his life.”

Yet many Ulstermen opted for this gruelling vocation, vividly confirmed by Clark’s approximation of “some 200 Ulster doctors who qualified before 1900 and served in the Navy, though this may well be an underestimate…”

In an impressive inventory of local Navy medics from the 18th and early 19th centuries that “only covers some of the more celebrated surgeons” Clark lists, amongst a dozen others, David McBride (1726-1778) “who obstinately recommended malt for the prevention of scurvy, even after it had been superseded by James Lind’s lemon juice”; Sir George Magrath (1775-1857) “a flag medical officer to Lord Nelson before Sir William Beatty, and was awarded the KCB by his former shipmate, King William IV in 1831” and Sir James Prior (circa 1790-1869) “who was present at the surrender of Heligoland in 1814 and of Napoleon himself in 1815.”

With the 210th anniversary of Trafalgar just passed, it’s appropriate to focus on two more of Nelson’s surgeons, recounted by Clark.

Leonard Gillespie was born at Armagh on May 20, 1758, son of Leonard Gillespie and Elizabeth Blakely. His parents died when he was a child and he was brought up by his two elder sisters until he was apprenticed at the age of 14 to a doctor in Armagh.

After studying in Dublin and London he became second assistant surgeon on HMS Royal Oak in 1777 and “saw a lot of the slave coast of West Africa and made journeys to and around the West Indies, guarding merchant ships.”

Promoted to surgeon in 1781, he returned after several years to mainland medicine in Armagh, London and Paris, but by 1787 he was back at sea.

Clark recounts “a humane and cultured man, he deplored the press-gang methods, the drunkenness, hangings and floggings, and the constant recourse to prostitutes who made treatment of venereal disease one of his main concerns.”

After more mainland medical work, Gillespie returned to the Navy in 1793 on board HMS Majestic, serving in Lord Howe’s victory on the Glorious First of June 1794 when he treated hundreds of French prisoners and many dozens of Majestic’s crew suffering from typhus, scurvy and hideous battle-wounds.

He joined HMS Victory in the Mediterranean in 1805, and every day Gillespie, Lord Nelson, Rear Admiral Murray and Captain Hardy enjoyed “a band performance at two o’clock followed by an excellent dinner with the best wines.”

In August 1805 he left HMS Victory; Gillespie’s health was not good and “fearing a major battle, he did not relish the brutal surgery which would inevitably accompany this” Clark surmises.

He died in London on January 13, 1842 aged 84 but was buried in Paris.

The second local surgeon remembered today in the wake of last week’s Trafalgar anniversary is Sir William Beatty, who treated the dying Lord Nelson on HMS Victory.

Beatty was born circa 1773 in Londonderry, the eldest of six children of James Beatty, employed by HM Customs, and Ann Smyth.

His “Authentic Narrative on the death of Lord Nelson” is a graphic record of Trafalgar and Nelson’s final moments.

The sniper’s gunshot “struck the forepart of his Lordship’s epaulette, and entered the left shoulder.”

The lead ball “descended obliquely into the thorax” fracturing ribs and bones, penetrating a lung, cutting through Nelson’s pulmonary artery and splintering his vertebrae.

Nelson was carried below deck, where the Londonderry surgeon examined him.

“Ah, Mr Beatty, you can do nothing for me,” said Nelson, “I have been shot through the spine.”

Sir William couldn’t stop Nelson’s severe bleeding and noted “he suffered greatly from thirst, but no treatment was possible and he died two and three-quarter hours later.”

Beattie spent his last years in London, where he died on March 25, 1842.

He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery “where there is sadly no memorial” R.S.J. Clark’s article ends, gloomily.