Royal Naval Museum

 

Heroes of the Squadron

Alexander Bryson

NAME

Dr. Alexander Bryson

LIVED

1802 – 1869

POSITION

Originally a surgeon on the West Africa Squadron, Bryson eventually became director general of the Naval Medical Service.

WHEN DID HE JOIN THE SQUADRON?

He served for nine years in ships on the coast of Africa prior to publishing a book on his illness on the Squadron

TELL ME MORE ABOUT HIM

Bryson was a highly respected surgeon, who was once an Honorary Physician to the Queen.  When he was serving on the Squadron, diseases such as yellow fever (also known at the time as Black Vomit) and malaria (known as the ‘vapours’) were the most common causes of the heaviest mortality on the squadron, but in the 1800’s no one had yet linked these diseases with the bite of a mosquito. 

Alarmed by the number of men on the squadron suffering, or worse, dying, from such diseases, the Admiralty requested a report on the matter and Bryson was given the job of writing it.  In 1847, Bryson published his ‘Report on the Climate and Principal Diseases of the African Station’, and he re-circulated it two years later to a wider audience as ‘An Account of the Origin, Spread & Decline of the Epidemic Fevers of Sierra Leone.’  Although Bryson did not fully understand the nature of these diseases, he quickly observed, “the nearer boats approach the shore the greater the risk of contracting disease; and this again is much increased by landing, and still more by sleeping on shore.”

WHAT IS HE BEST REMEMBERED FOR?

Bryson is best remembered for his work on illness and mortality on the West Africa Squadron.  His report is a valuable survey of health and disease on the station and the statistics he gathered on the squadron’s mortality rates are thought to be even more reliable than the government statistics of the time.  Although yellow fever was not properly understood for another 50 years, Bryson’s observations - together with the work of another surgeon W.B Baikie, who proved the effectiveness of quinine in the prevention and cure of malaria – are thought to have significantly reduced the impact of malaria on the squadron.

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