Ship MD - A lesson on Illness and Injury aboard Naval ships

Life aboard a naval ship in the War of 1812 was extremely difficult; sailors had to deal with the dangers posed by illness, accidents, and battle injuries. Knowledge about health, disease, and nutrition in the 1800s was still primitive and lacked modern understanding about germs, hygiene, nutrition, and disease. Naval ships like USS Constitution had a surgeon (doctor) on board who was responsible for the health of a crew of up to 480 sailors. In this lesson, your students take on the role of the surgeon and work in teams to diagnose major illnesses and predict injuries to the crew.

Puzzling Vocabulary: All Guts and Gory

After studying both the "Sickbay" and "Cockpit after Battle" scenes in Explore Old Ironsides, have students complete the All Guts and Gory crossword puzzle to check for understanding and attention to detail.

Medicine in 1812

Medicine in the nineteenth century centered on the idea of "humors;" an imbalance of them made one ill and medicines were used to try and regain balance of the four humors - blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. For more information on 19th century medical assumptions, visit the University of Pennsylvania's Exploring Illness Across Time and Place In this lesson, students will meet Surgeon Amos Evans of Constitution's 1812 crew, investigate the properties of drugs he most likely had at his disposal, study a primary source quote from him, and diagnose a crew member. Included in the lesson plan are the primary and secondary resources listed below.


Constitution's crew are a healthy lot. Few catch the infectious diseases that on other ships are more deadly than enemy cannon. And if a sailor does fall ill, he is soon treated. In the sickbay surgeon Amos Evans and his assistants usually care for a dozen or more patients. Rest, cleanliness and a better diet cure most of them, but the medical treatment they get is little help. Lacking modern drugs and medical knowledge, the surgeon's prescriptions harm patients as often as healing them.

Sickbay on Berth Deck: Sleeping, Eating and Healing in all the Same Places

Describe the scene in Sickbay with your students. Sickbay was on the Berth Deck, the same deck where healthy sailors slept in their hammocks and ate with their messmates. Why would we frown on housing our sick friends in the same room as our healthy friends today? Can your students find any precautions against spreading disease by looking closely and reading the conversations in the active "Sickbay" scene in Explore Old Ironsides?

Eat your Fruits and Vegetables!

Scurvy is a disease resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C. Play this simple guessing game with students to identify which of their fruits and vegetables would help them prevent scurvy! Simply print the activity double sided, cut out the cards, laminate them for durability if you'd like, and place them image side up. Challenge your students to guess which ones have vitamin C. Flip them over to find out the answer - some of them may surprise you!