Reviews and Short Notices
Physician to the Fleet: The Life and Times of Thomas Trotter 1760–1832. By Brian Vale and Griffith Edwards. Boydell. 2011. xiii + 235pp. £60.00.
Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature © 2013 The Historical Association
Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature
Volume 96, Issue 1, pages 97–98, December 2012
How to Cite
Cherry, S. (2012), Physician to the Fleet: The Life and Times of Thomas Trotter 1760–1832. By Brian Vale and Griffith Edwards. Boydell. 2011. xiii + 235pp. £60.00. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature, 96: 97–98. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8314.2012.01264.x
- Issue published online: 20 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
This first full biography of Thomas Trotter MD records his eventful life and writing with a good eye to context over a period of rapid social change. From his relatively modest origins in Melrose, Roxburghshire, Trotter had a grammar school education and when 17 attended the prestigious Edinburgh medical school for a year, sufficient to qualify as a surgeon's mate in the Royal Navy. Aboard the Berwick he was involved in the battle of Dogger Bank against the Dutch in August 1791. Without a ship in 1783 he undertook a fourteen-month spell as a surgeon on the notorious slaver Brookes, which made him a committed abolitionist; his evidence to the House of Commons select committee on the Slave Trade in 1790 is reproduced here. Then a surgeon-apothecary in Wooler, Northumberland, he had also obtained his MD, awarded by the University of Edinburgh in 1788. The authors contextualize Trotter's progress during these years, providing useful and informative chapters on Enlightenment medical education, conditions in the Royal Navy, medicine at sea and the slave trade.
A second period of naval service from 1789 saw Trotter's rapid promotion and transfer as second physician to Haslar Naval Hospital, shortly before his appointment as Physician to the Channel Fleet under Lord Howe in 1794, when he saw action on the Charon against the French on 1 June. Possibly his election relied upon Fleet Captain Sir Roger Curtis, who shared Trotter's published endorsement of lemon juice and fresh vegetables to combat scurvy in his revised Observations on the Scurvy (1792). Trotter thus emerges as ‘a major player’ in the adoption by the Navy's Sick and Hurt Board of these measures in May 1795. He had also promoted vaccination against smallpox, meeting and corresponding with Jenner, and a range of hygiene measures against typhus. However, recurring problems with a hernia, the reduced role of the Channel Fleet and the retirement of Lord Howe soon restricted Trotter's activities and influence. Shore-based, his concerns over supplies of lemon juice, fumigation and his own remuneration irritated the admiralty and Haslar physicians and, with the navy demobilized in 1802, he was retired with half-pay.
Perhaps understandably, the final third of the book seems less lively, though it deals with tragedy and controversy. Trotter went into practice in Newcastle but his new wife, Elizabeth, died after giving birth to a son in April 1804. With no surviving practice records, the post-1802 material focuses upon his writing and correspondence. His Essay on Drunkenness (1804) revisited his MD dissertation and naval experience; describing excesses and disease-risks, Trotter depicted habitual drunkenness as ‘a disease of the mind’, anticipating alcohol dependence. His collection, A View of the Nervous Temperament (1807–12), added little to the work of Cheyne, Tissot or Cullen, however, and proved less influential than his Medicina Nautica (1803). A well-meaning foray into measures against ‘the fire and choak-damp of coal mines’ led to a bruising pamphlet war with Henry Dewar, another local practitioner with naval experience, revealing Trotter's greatly developed sense of self-image.
A man of the Enlightenment, a poet and playwright, Trotter was a complex character. Opinionated and over-sensitive to criticism, he also could be deferential, even fawning, towards patrons and luminaries. However, the authors ensure this account of his life and times is no less interesting for that. As expected from Boydell, the book is well-produced and illustrated, a fine turnout but one literally diminished by the small font size of the text for a ha'p'orth of production cost perhaps.