Don Esteban Maturin y Domanova
Dr. John Rice
Don Esteban Maturin y Domanova was born on March 25, Lady Day, sometime between 1770 and 1775, the exact year is not known. His father was an Irish officer, from the illegitimate side of the Fitzgerald clan, but connected with the highest families in Ireland. His mother was a Catalan lady, from that region of northeastern Spain and southern France, which still retains its distinct language and culture.
Stephen spent his early childhood in County Clare, in Ireland. His parents both died when he was quite young, so he spent the remainder of his youth primarily with his godfather Don Ramon Domanova at the family estate near Lerida, in Catalonia.
Trinity College in Dublin was Stephen’s first alma mater, granting him his doctorate in medicine in the late 1780’s. He no doubt saw patients at the famous Meath Hospital, founded 1753. Attached to Trinity College, it is the most significant medical institution in Ireland relative to medical history. Its Dublin School of medicine included Drs. Robert Graves, William Stokes, John Cheyne and Abraham Colles.
Maturin then pursued additional training in medicine at the University of Paris, walking the wards of the Hotel Dieu. While a student in Paris he lived upstairs from a future super-surgeon, Guillaume Dupuytren, on the Rue Git-le Coeur, where they shard cadavers for dissection. Another acquaintance was Dominique-Jean Larrey, later to be chief medical officer under Bonaparte, and founder of the ambulance service. Napoleon called him “the most virtuous man I have ever known.”
During his college years Maturin acquired particular skills with the sword and pistol, as well as cards. These talents were to serve him well during his years of naval service.
The French Revolution initially captured the interest of Maturin; however, the rise to power of Bonaparte engendered his disenchantment with the French cause, particularly as it pertained to Catalonian independence. Maturin, raised a Catholic, found himself in the somewhat conflicting position of an Irish Catholic siding with the British against France.
After a chance meeting with a certain Captain Jack Aubrey, RN, in Port Mahon, Menorca, Stephen signed on as a ship’s surgeon on Aubrey’s new command, HMS Sophie, thus beginning a long friendship as well as a long association with the British navy.
Stephen Maturin was an unusual medical figure in His majesty’s Navy in that year 1800. He was an educated physician, no mere surgeon, serving first on a two masted sloop, and then a square rigged frigate, the Surprise, much smaller fare than the giant first rate ships of the line. His skills and high qualifications combined with fluency in English, French, Spanish, Catalan and Irish, and the great success of Capt. Aubrey all brought Maturin to the attention of British Naval Intelligence. Over the next 15 years, with the accommodation of his particular friend, Capt. Aubrey, and the spy-handling of Sir Joseph Blaine from London, Maturin adopted the double duties of physician and spy, leading to numerous marvelous, frequently outrageous adventures, all the stuff of grand fiction.
For, you see, Stephen Maturin was no real physician. He was simply one of many finely drawn characters created by the late Richard Patrick Russ/O’Brian may have had a touch of the charlatan in him, insofar as he created a not wholly truthful persona for his reading public, that does not detract from the painstaking and careful research of his novels, each literally wrenched from miles in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
Many of the fine sea battles depicted in the 20 volume Aubrey/ Matruin series are based on true naval engagements. Historical figures wander in and out of the novels-admirals, scientists and royalty alike. In addition O’Brian, the son of a physician, pays great attention to detail in portraying the life and professional activities of a naval physician in the early 19th century.
Dr. J. worth Estes, medical historian at Boston College, has written a monograph entitled “Stephen Matruin and Naval Medicine in the Age of Sail.” In it Dr. Estes quotes Matruin’s well worded caveat: “Medicine can do very little; surgery less. I can purge you, bleed you, worm you at a pinch, set your leg or take it off, and that is very nearly all.”
As ship physician Matruin received 5 sterling per month plus additional fees for each “pox”, or syphilis case he treated. This supplement was a substantial sum, reflecting the frequency of that infection, and its ineffective treatment. In point of fact, the lordly physicians could effectively treat only two diseases at sea-malaria, with the park of the cinchona tree, containing quinine; and scurvy, with acerbate containing foods, typically fruit juice in diluted rum, or “ grog.”
Dr. James Lind, Scotsman and “Father of Nautical Medicine”, first demonstrated the efficacy of fresh fruits and vegetables in the treatment of scurvy in the mid 1700’s. However, John Woodall, “Father of Sea Surgery”, should also receive credit. While Surgeon-General of the East India company he published “The Surgeon’s Mate” in 1617, first textbook of naval medicine, which includes a treatise on scurvy.
The medical chests loaded onto His Majesty’s ships contained numerous interesting and dangerous compounds designed to relieve fevers, pains, constipation, rashes and other maladies common to sailors. Purge, bleed, sweat and blister were the commandments of the enlightened physicians of the era. Maturing, for instance, thought it good practice to bleed the whole crew, up to 20 ounces each, when entering the tropics. This reduced the friction between the blood and walls of the blood vessels, which was felt to be a cause of fevers.
A prominent fixture of most medical tests of the period was “blue pill”, sublimate of mercury with rose essence and a spot of licorice. Mercury ointments and calomel, mercurous chloride, were also standbys for syphilis and other disorders. The purgative effects of these compounds, along with the excessive salivation and drooling induced were precursors to the renal and neural toxic effects on vision, speech and balance, all of which blurred the distinction between fatal mercury poisoning and the advancement of the disease.
Opium, in the form of an alcoholic tincture, or laudanum was also well thought of by medical men for its many properties; indeed Maturin became almost helplessly addicted to the poppy. Like his literary parallel Sherlock Holmes, Maturin also developed a taste for coca leaf, which allowed him to kick his opium habit. In combination with other compounds, the poppy could take many dangerous and unpredictable forms. Methridatum was an ancient polypharmacy cure-all and antidote featuring lizard’s belly, among about 50 other constituents. Theriac as another amalgamation of a small amount of poppy gum and some 70 additional ingredients originally thought up by the Emperor Nero’s court physician, Andromachus.
As physician of his ship Maturin had certain public health duties, including seeing to adequate ventilation and sanitation for the crew.