Conditions of Service of Medical Officers - Naval Assistant Surgeons - 1840

December 20, 1840. Mr. Editor,—1 lately sent the following to the President of the College of Surgeons, and will feel much obliged by your inserting it in the Journal, for the perusal of that ill-treated class—Naval Assistant Surgeons.

I am, &c,

T. Stratton. To the President and Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, the petition of Thomas Stratton, Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and an Assistant-Surgeon in the Navy.


1. That while Army Assistant-Surgeons and Navy Captains and Lieutenants are styled "commissioned" officers, Navy Assistant-Surgeons are degradingly called "warrant" officers.

2. That Navy Assistant-Surgeons mess with a number of boys, of the age of nine to fourteen, instead of messing in the ward-room, with their juniors in rank, namely, some First Lieutenants of Marines and their inferiors in rank, namely, all Second Lieutenants of Marines.

3. That Navy Assistant-Surgeons are not allowed cabins to sleep in on board ship, and have no place of retirement for study, to the injury of their respectability and comfort, and also of the interests of the public service.

4. That, while by an order in council of 1805 Navy Assistant-Surgeons are given the comparative rank of Army Lieutenants, they have not as yet been treated as if they had such rank.

5. That these grievances are unjust, insulting, and degrading. It is unjust to call a Navy Assistant-Surgeon a "warrant" officer, when an Army Assistant-Surgeon is called a "commissioned" officer, and also Navy Captains and Lieutenants.

6. It is insulting and degrading to attempt making a distinction between two gentlemen taken from the same position in society, who have received the same education, and may be Licentiates of the same College of Surgeons, viz., any Army Assistant-Surgeon and any Navy Assistant-Surgeon.

7. That Second Lieutenants of Marines, who rank below a Navy Assistant Surgeon, possess cabins, and mess in the ward-room, of both which rights Navy Assistant-Surgeons are unjustly kept out of possession.

Also, many First Lieutenants of Marines, who take rank with Navy Assistant-Surgeons, according to the dates of their seniority, as First Lieutenants and Assistant-Surgeons, are, like all Second Lieutenants, in possession of two privileges of which their seniors in rank are deprived.

8. That while I do not wish to receive any advantage to the prejudice of Lieutenants of Marines, a thing which is not necessary, I wish to see Navy Assistant-Surgeons treated as well as their juniors and inferiors in rank are treated.

9. The subscriber respectfully requests the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, as a body, to address the proper authorities, and claim the redress of those grievances of Licentiates of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and the publication of an order to the effect that—

1. Navy Assistant-Surgeons be styled "commissioned" officers.

2. In every ship the Assistant-Surgeons be allowed cabins.

3. Assistant-Surgeons shall mess in the ward-room.

Thos. Stratton,

Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh,

Assistant-Surgeon in the Navy.

Dec. 15, 1840.

Naval Assistant-Surgeons.

To the Editor of The Lancet.

15 May 1841.

Sir:—The remarks you appended to the letter of a "Naval Assistant-Surgeon" in The Lancet of the 13th inst., seem to me to call for reply. The object of the writer of that letter was to state the existence of substantial grounds of complaint among his class of officers in the royal navy. A prominent object of your editorial duty being the exposure and removal of all abuses affecting the medical profession, whether in the public service or in private practice, you will not, I hope, decline the publication of the following remarks; especially as they proceed from the pen of one who has himself endured the privations, and submitted to the discomforts complained of. Looking at the same rank of medical officers in the army, we see the assistant-surgeon enjoying unrestrained intercourse with the surgeon, and his other brother officers of the same regiment, both at the mess-table and in general society; yet, without throwing down all distinctions between the surgeon and his assistant; without any disadvantage to the public service; deficiency of respect for his superior officers ; or any feeling of derogation on their part, resulting from such association. Then why should opposite results be pleaded for the continued exclusion of the assistant-surgeon from the ward-room in the naval services ? Again, reverting to the navy, we see a raw youth of nineteen, having just left school, coming on board a man-of-war as a marine-officer. He is received as a gentleman; introduced at once into the ward-room, takes his seat at the mess-table by the side of a veteran first lieutenant, and a gray-headed captain of the same corps ; freely mixing in the society of other officers of superior rank to himself ; accommodated with a private cabin ; the comfort of a cot ; and the gentlemanly appendage of a manservant. Whilst the assistant-surgeon, who has been toiling through a long and laborious course of classical, scientific, and professional education ; finished, perhaps, with the acquisition of university honours, if not with a doctor's degree in medicine ; as soon as be makes his appearance alongside the ship to which he is appointed, is not received on the same side of the quarter-deck as the young marine-officer, or with equal distinctions as a gentleman ; he is then handed down into the "midshipmen's berth," the only place for his constant residence, his meals, and his study –where, 'if the assistant-surgeon will read, will study, will insist upon distinguishing himself by excellent reports, ingenious and practical views," he must labour to do so, is perpetually surrounded by noisy youngsters and garrulous companions, who have generally a great antipathy to studious habits, and literary and scientific pursuits. Now, I ask, whether it be fitting, whether it be just, that the assistant-surgeon, who by laws and regulations is required to be the best educated person entering the naval service, and who does not enter it to learn a practical profession (which may fairly sanction a progressive scale of accommodation agreeably to acquired rank and promotion among nautical officers in the naval service), that he should be thus disparaged, instead of enjoying the respect due to his profession and standing as a gentleman in society. But as you, Mr. Editor, expressly "prefer to receive suggestions for the correction of the inconveniences to mere complaints," I would urge the justice as well as the practicability of having the assistant-surgeon provided with a separate cabin, as his dormitory and study; when the desirable and important professional objects enumerated by yourself may be accomplished, to the credit of the assistant-surgeon, the good of the naval service, and the advantage of the medical profession. And if the time be not yet arrived for the assistant-surgeon equitably to participate in the companionship of the ward-room officers with the more fortunate subaltern officer of marines, both on the quarter-deck and at their mess-table (although a better-educated man and their compeer in general society); then let him still patiently endure his invidious exclusion, the boisterous mirth of his junior messmates, and the annoying interruptions of his studies by his riotous mess-companions, until his hammock be turned into a cot, and he fortunately exchange his noisy homestead for the luxury of a quiet cabin: indulging the generous hope that the auspicious hour is not far distant when succeeding officers of his grade will be benefited by the improved arrangements of a more enlightened and liberal policy. Then, sir, may you expect no longer to have reason for "expressing a sincere regret that the science of medicine should have received so little from the hands of naval medical officers."

I am, Sir, yours obediently,

A Late Naval Assistant-surgeon.

As our correspondents on the above subject have no suggestion to offer for the remedy of the inconveniences of which they complain, perhaps they will have no objection to receive one from us. Let the surgeons of the navy, who must be experimentally acquainted with the sufferings of their juniors, if they see reason in the solicitations of the assistants, address a petition on the subject to the physician-general; and we feel sure that their request will receive proper attention. It will not be easy to legislate upon the matter so as to afford satisfaction to all parties.

Source : Part 1, U.S.M. for 1840 , Page 253

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