Jack and the Shannon

In our final blog of the year, we look at a case of amputation instruments used by Alexander Jack during the early 1800s. Jack was an RCSEd Diplomate in 1801 and later ship’s surgeon aboard the HMS Shannon. These instruments are part of his personal surgery kit and were used by him during the battle between the Shannon and the American frigate the USS Chesapeake, on June 1st 1813 during the War of 1812.


The battle between the two ships lasted only fifteen minutes and at a combined cost of in the region of 225 dead or wounded, it was one of the bloodiest single ship actions of the age of sail. The watercolour illustrated here depicts the moment the captured Chesapeake is led into Halifax harbour, Nova Scotia, by the victorious British sailors. As was often the case with vessels seized in war, the Chesapeake was repaired and then sailed under the British flag until in 1819 it was broken up for timber. In fact, Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, Hampshire, is built from this wood, including deck beams and the ship’s ribs.

The instruments are stamped with the maker’s mark of Evans, a London-based company started in 1676. This set is probably from the late eighteenth century based on the markings. The set contains: An amputating saw; metacarpal saw; three amputating knives; two pairs of sliding artery forceps; three curved suture needles; two Petit’s spiral tourniquets; bone forceps; and a hooked needle. As a naval surgeon of the early nineteenth century, Jack would have been expected to deal with a wide range of sailor’s ailments, from injuries that could be dealt with using the saw, to dietary conditions such as scurvy. Life as a surgeon at sea would have been extremely testing, and mental resilience an important characteristic to cultivate.ed-cs-2012-7-1

Both the instrument set and painting can be seen on display in the naval surgery case, in the Wohl Pathology Museum, Surgeons’ Hall Museums.



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