Dr. William N. Stone, Boston Harbor, 1869
He could diagnose the particular illness
from across the docks by the way a sailor
walked off the ship and down the gangway.
Rickets: the scrawny bow-legged one.
Scabies: the short sailor, bag shouldered,
free-hand scratching vigorously.
TB: the mick’s hunched, stalling cough.
Another hobbled by gangrene’s deathly creep.
He’d ready the lotions, medicines,
scalpels, suture needles, bandages, whiskey.
Ready for bile-filled bellies, bones badly
broken then badly set. Mites and lice,
scurvy’s blackening bruises, bloody
toothless mouths, wreaked livers,
weakened lungs, busted noses, cauliflower
ears, the ooze of puss from open wounds.
Steady stream. They’d queue outside. First stop
before pubs, whores, dinner, a bath,
while they still had cash in hand.
He’d ask them in to his room, seat
each sailor on the table. Quick check
then set to work, probe, mend, amputate,
medicate, bandage, eradicate.
Their breath stinking of rum and rot.
Their talk of storms, endless seas, loss.
Some arrived wearing death’s ragged coat,
he’d refuse their pay. Peer, pry, then lie,
ply with more whisky and send off with a pat.
This poem initially was about pirates. I then started researching the history of ship and shore doctors during the great sailing ship era. That learning took me to redraft this poem in this form and to epigraph it to a doctor I discovered along the way. It appeared in the 2017 edition of Freshwater Literary Journal.