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Nelson: a hero despite sickness and injury

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Monday 29 September marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Horatio Nelson, naval commander and national hero. During his career, he suffered innumerable illnesses, wounds and depression but overcame them to emerge as a leader and inspiration to others.

Nelson was born in 1758 in Burnham Thorpe rectory, Norfolk. His mother died when he was nine, and three years later her brother, Captain Suckling, took him into the Navy on his ship the Raisonnable.

Horatio was a slightly built, sensitive child. He would become seasick whenever his ship left harbour, an affliction that remained with him all his life. As a midshipman in 1775, he became ill in the East Indies with what was described as “a malignant disorder producing temporary paralysis”, which was probably malaria, of which he suffered repeated attacks throughout his career.

In 1777 he contracted yellow fever and, despite at one point being so feverish as to be rendered inarticulate, he rallied enough to accompany a landing party up the San Juan river in Central America. Of 200 men on the trip, almost 150 died from the disease.

He was also prone to periods of withdrawal and depression and, during one such bout in 1787, shortly before his marriage to Frances Nesbit, it was suspected he was also suffering from tuberculosis, leading his crew to prepare a puncheon of rum to receive his body.

After this episode he was pensioned off but, at the outbreak of the French revolution, he was recalled and sailed to the Mediterranean, where he complained of severe chest pains, as well as recurrence of malaria, and later what he called rheumatic fever and “blood rushing to the side of my head”.

Despite his hero status, he was plagued by private anxieties and when ill displayed a neurotic exaggeration of symptoms. However, his valour was never in question. In July 1794, at the siege of Calvi, off Corsica, he was struck by metal splinters on the right side of his face and lost the sight in that eye, probably as a result of retinal detachment.

Three years later he led an attack on Santa Cruz in Tenerife and, as he drew his sword, grapeshot shattered his right elbow. His arm was amputated midway between shoulder and elbow, using no more anaesthetic than a shot of rum and a piece of leather between his teeth. He had a further narrow escape during the battle of the Nile in 1798, when a glancing wound to his forehead caused a flap of skin to fall over his good eye, and in a panic he thought he was blinded, until vision was restored when the flap was lifted.

Finally, at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, he succumbed to a French musket ball, which ruptured the pulmonary artery. His body was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in a black marble sarcophagus that had been ordered for Cardinal Wolsey almost 300 years before but not used.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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