The ship’s doctor or “surgeon” was faced with many grave illnesses and serious injuries during the course of an expedition. It became an accepted fact that many on long expeditions would succumb to disease, infection, and malnutrition before they reached home. Scurvy was a serious condition that killed thousands of sailors throughout the 18th century as a result of poor nutrition. A better variety of foods and careful observation led to effective preventative measures.
Surgeons did not fully understand bacteria, believing instead that bad smells, fogs, or changes in climate caused infection. Their unsterile implements and the cabin in which they conducted their work could harm rather than help the men they treated. Sailors who perished were sewn into a sac and dropped into the sea, leaving diminished numbers to struggle with shipboard duties. Those who survived faced unusual and experimental treatments, and improperly set broken bones and infected wounds could become life threatening.
Viruses and infections spread by sexual contact were rampant. The European sailors with syphilis, gonorrhoea, and other venereal diseases transmitted them to the women of the Pacific Northwest. On rare occasions, the coastal peoples engaged freely in sexual contact with the sailors, and there was also forced sexual activity and prostitution, generally involving slaves. The diseases were often passed back to crews of other European vessels through the same behaviour – a Russian strain of gonorrhoea spread to Cook’s crew in the Pacific Northwest. Cook’s crew ignored their captain’s strict rules about sexual conduct and spread syphilis to the peoples of Vancouver Island in the process. In 1793, Moziño recorded the devastation of venereal disease among the Mowachaht in Noticias de Nutka. There are recorded cases in the 18th century of surgeons extorting money from sailors to cure their venereal diseases, but more often doctors were concerned with containing its spread. Only eight cases of venereal disease were recorded aboard the Resolution and the Discovery under Cook, but there were surely many more.