As sailors began to explore the world and leave land further astern, the problem of keeping healthy on long voyages became acute. Malnourishment and crowded conditions bred disease, and serious injury was commonplace. Furthermore, sailors carried epidemics that decimated indigenous populations in far off lands, while they brought back new diseases such as syphilis, thought to have been contracted on the Columbus expeditions to North America.
As navies developed the well being of crews became a dominant factor in the success of naval operations. It is no surprise that the Royal Navy led the way in shipboard medical provision and sponsored many of the advances in diet and hygiene which, by the Napoleonic Wars, gave its fleets a significant advantage over all its enemies; these improvements trickled down to the merchant service.
Eventually, the struggle to improve the fitness of seamen became a national concern, manifest in a series of far-reaching - and sometimes bizarre - public health measures. Any number of scientific breakthroughs were of universal benefit so, far from being a narrow study of medicine at sea, this book provides a fascinating picture of social improvement. Kevin Brown, the author, is the curator of the Alexander Fleming Museum at St mary's Hospital, Paddington and an expert in the history of medicine.