JOHN COULTER – IRELAND’S WHALING SURGEON

County Cavan’s John Coulter was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) on 15 June 1827. He was now in a position to call himself a ‘surgeon-apothecary’, or to be known as a ‘general practitioner’ – a term popularised by the The Lancet, an influential weekly magazine which circulated amongst the medical profession. Coulter could now ‘hang out his shingle’ and become a regular medical practitioner. He could treat the public in an urban or rural setting, or work in a hospital, or enlist as a surgeon in the armed or merchant marine services. Coulter however, in search of adventure, exotic sights and curious experiences, chose to go to sea and ply his skills on the whaling ship Stratford. It was a decision which some of his MRCS colleagues might have deemed ‘irrational’. All a whaling surgeon could be sure of was hardship, years away from home, a small income, and meagre free board and lodging for the length of the voyage. But then there was also the chance of adventure, and the opportunity to visit exotic lands.

Maintaining health standards on a sailing ship, particularly a whaler, was no small challenge. Not only did the crew have to contend with the normal rigours of ships of the day, they also had to contend with the additional dangers of finding, killing and landing great leviathans of the deep, often in adverse conditions. This did not deter Coulter, who on his first Stratford voyage sailed into the Pacific and enjoyed the experience so much that he re-enlisted in 1832. ‘Anyone with a wish for adventure and variety can be fully gratified on those vessels, as there are none others afloat that have the same endless opportunity. In cruising after whale, they frequently circumnavigate the globe, and call at every island and port’, he declared.

By modern standards, Coulter’s medical chest was rudimentary, containing roots, powders, opium, mercury, elixirs and plasters together with knives, saws, probes, cautery irons and forceps. Ship owners did not like to spend good money on medical fripperies and considered employing a surgeon as nothing more than a legally required gesture. In addition to duties such as treating scurvy, syphilis, purging, amputating, splinting, pulling teeth and dealing with fevers, a whaling surgeon, like Coulter, had an added responsibility in relation to discipline. When punishment was meted out to a crew member, the surgeon had to assess the miscreant’s state of health, his ability to withstand the designated punishment, and to provide appropriate treatment once retribution was completed.

While scurvy, that insidious destroyer of health, spirits, and eventually life itself, remained the bane of all seafarers, crank theories to combat the disease abounded. Coulter himself held one of the strangest, believing that salted provisions actually caused scurvy, and that the disease could be cured by just walking about on land. To ‘prove’ his theory Coulter, in 1833, took some of the ailing Stratford’s crew ashore on the Galapagos Islands. Here green turtles could easily be caught, as could fish, moreover the islands boasted an array of herbs, so obviously nothing was going to disprove Coulter’s theory!

Soon after the sailors pitched camp on the Galapagos, Coulter decided to undertake ‘an exploring excursion’ of the island which he judged would take him about three weeks. In Indiana Jones fashion he set off into the unknown, bashing the scrub, pausing to shoot seals, make new shoes, swimming across shark infested inlets, before returning to the crew encampment. It was deserted. ‘Picture my feelings when there as neither man, boy or ship to receive me’, he later wrote. However, the ship’s captain had left suitable supplies and two weeks later Stratford reappeared to rescue the anxious surgeon.

On another voyage, Stratford visited the warring, and dangerous, Marquesas Islands. Here Coulter became embroiled in a tribal war, and helped a local chief by removing two bullets. Following this surgery and a display of keen marksmanship with a firearm, Coulter was rewarded with an ornate headdress to mark his ‘special status’. However, as part of this esteemed position it was necessary for him to be tattooed. Understandably he had some reservations, but was eventually persuaded to ‘accede to the wishes of the chiefs and people — and bear any pain inflicted by the operation as manfully as I could’. His only proviso was that his face would remain unmarked. For seven hours, over two days, he endured the unhygienic primitive, painful, tattooing ordeal over his torso, legs and arms. He later sheepishly admitted the whole exercise made him feel ‘a little faintish’.

Despite his official duties, Coulter, like many of the other whaling surgeons, had plenty of time to indulge in a passion for actually hunting whales. On numerous occasions he joined the rowing boat crew in the final dangerous pursuit of the mammals. He developed expert harpoon skills and boasted of his ability to ‘dart irons [harpoons] with all my force’.

Blessed with sharpshooting and harpoon expertise, not to mention his heavily tattooed body, Doctor John Coulter could have been a successful circus performer on retirement from whaling duties. Instead, he settled in Dublin, where he became surgeon-accoucheur in the General Lying-In Hospital (The Rotunda). Arguably, obstetrics might seem a strange occupation for an adventurous, unconventional sea-dog and one can only wonder what his female Dublin patients thought when he rolled up his sleeves at work to display an array of exotic tattoos!

The date of Coulter’s death is unknown, but was probably in the early 1860s as in 1862 his name disappeared from the membership list of the Royal College of Surgeons. However, he may just have retired to country living. Perhaps, after such an adventurous life it was time for a well earned rest.

John Hagan

___________________________________________________________________