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Pirate Doctor: Medical implements from Blackbeard's ship

Archaeologists excavating the Queen Anne's Revenge have found a variety of medical implements indicating health hazards on the high seas.

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1920, public domain

The life of a pirate in the 17th century was not really kind to one's health -- and hazards numbered greater than scurvy and musket-balls. Even the infamously cruel pirate Edward Teach -- better known as Blackbeard -- needed to make health provisions for his crew.

His frigate, the Queen Anne's Revenge, was -- like pretty much anything owned by a pirate -- stolen. Operating as a French slaver under the name La Concorde de Nantes, she was seized by pirate Captain Benjamin Hornigold on November 28, 1717. Captain Hornigold gave the ship to one of his men to captain -- Blackbeard.

Blackbeard didn't have the ship for long. He ran her aground in May of 1718 at Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina, and left her there until her rediscovery in 1996. (Blackbeard himself was killed nearly a year to the day after the capture of the ship -- November 22, 1718.)

Although Blackbeard made some modifications to the vessel -- adding cannons -- he probably didn't need to restock, for example, her first aid supplies, many of which have been recovered by archaeologists working on the Queen Anne's Revenge project by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. So far, around 60 percent of the ship has been excavated.

Urethral syringe for administering mercury for the treatment of syphilis. North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources

The team, led by volunteer archaeologist Linda Carnes McNaughton, recently presented their research into the ship's medicine at the Society for Historical Archaeology annual meeting.

"We just have to understand that these people were suffering," she said. "They were seeking relief for any kind of ailment, and certainly if there was warfare on the water, there were wounds among other ailments that needed treatment. It wasn't always a formally trained person in desperate times. That's probably more common than we know."

That said, on board the Queen Anne's Revenge, Blackbeard retained, along with the medical supplies, the ship's three surgeons, pressing them into service. Surgeon Major Jean Dubou and surgeon Marc Bourgneuf are listed on both the La Concorde de Nantes crew muster and court records regarding Blackbeard's crew. The surgeon's aide, Nicholas Gautrain, is listed on the muster, but not the court records.

Pump clyster (left) for enemas, and mortar and pestle (right). North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources

Ailments they would have been called upon to treat would have included, the paper notes, "chronic and periodic illnesses, wounds, amputations, toothaches, burns and other indescribable maladies". How good they were at their jobs is unknown; but the equipment they had to work with was pretty dire.

Among the finds is a urethral syringe for injecting mercury to treat syphilis (which is exactly as awful as it sounds); two pump clysters, for administering enemas; a porringer, probably used for bloodletting; a brass mortar-and-pestle for grinding material to a powder; and two sets of nesting weights for weighing medicines.

Visit Live Science to see a full gallery of the recovered items.