In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Warfare, Medicine, and Disease in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Military Medicine
  • Administration of Medicine in the Armed Forces
  • Innovation and Reform
  • Disease and Health Among Soldiers
  • Disease and Health at Sea
  • Exchanges and Expeditions

Atlantic History Warfare, Medicine, and Disease in the Atlantic World
Erica Charters
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0232


Disease has played a major role in the interaction between Europeans and indigenous people in the Atlantic world, often in the context of war (see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Disease in the Atlantic World”). Given that more troops died from disease than from combat during the early modern period, and that the environment of the Atlantic world exacerbated the problem of disease, historians have tended to follow contemporaries’ emphasis on disease rather than surgery or injuries. Whether from extended transatlantic voyages that gave rise to scurvy, greater distances and foreign territory that complicated supply systems, or from the virulent disease environments of the West Indies and African coast, war in the Atlantic world was accompanied by high rates of disease among European troops. Historians have analyzed responses to such challenges—logistical flexibility, scientific research, and the acquisition of indigenous medical knowledge—to gauge European adaptation to foreign environments. Similar to histories of science (see the Oxford Bibliographies article “History of Science”), early histories of medicine and medical care during war tend to stress poor provisions and a lack of knowledge. But, just as historians of science recast colonies as sites of scientific innovation, so historians of medicine identify military medicine and colonial warfare as encouraging new forms of medicine. The idea that warfare in the Atlantic world spurred medical innovation challenges an older model of understanding European medicine, one that portrayed a diffusion of European medical and military knowledge into colonial military theaters. Instead, scholars of military medicine see European medical knowledge and practice shaped in these colonial theaters through the experience of local conditions, as well as by local peoples and their military and medical practices (see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Warfare”). Given the paucity of sources on medicine and disease among indigenous peoples, and Europeans’ preoccupation with health and disease as both a strategic and moral imperative, the topic is generally Eurocentric: there is a focus on developments in European or Western medicine, and on responses to disease among Europeans in colonial settings, as the specialty of tropical medicine demonstrates. For details on European disease among African and American Indian populations, see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Disease in the Atlantic World”. Likewise, given the preoccupation with military and naval manpower, most works pay little attention to the health of children or women.

Reference Works

Wide-ranging, often multivolume reference works provide basic information on medicine and medical personnel stationed in Europe and overseas. These are organized by nation, following chronological national military histories (for Spain, see Massons 1994; for Britain see Cantlie 1974), often treating navies and armies separately (for Britain’s navy, see Keevil, et al. 1957–1963; for Portugal’s navy, see Menses 1987; for Portuguese military hospitals, see Borges 2009). As a result, these tend to follow a traditional Whiggish overview of the progress of medicine within national armed forces, highlighting poor conditions and medical care during the early modern period, thus identifying progress in the 19th and 20th centuries. Collections of individual medical men, such as Brisou and Sardet 2010, provide useful references of personnel and their individual accomplishments.

  • Borges, Augusto Moutinho. Reais Hospitais Militares em Portugal (1640–1834). Coimbra, Portugal: University of Coimbra, 2009.

    DOI: 10.14195/978-989-26-0494-7

    Concise overview of Portugal’s royal military hospitals from the 17th through the early 19th century. Although focusing on hospitals on the Portuguese mainland, it provides a useful background on military medicine during this period, examining hospitals in religious, urban, and architectural contexts. Extensively illustrated with contemporary prints and plans as well as recent photographs.

  • Brisou, Bernard, and Michel Sardet, eds. Dictionnaire des médecins, chirurgiens et pharmaciens de la Marine. Vincennes, France: Service historique de la defense, 2010.

    Outlines the careers of French naval physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries, both overseas and domestic, from 1666 to the 20th century. Entries of individuals list publications and accomplishments.

  • Cantlie, Neil. A History of the Army Medical Department. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 1974.

    Chronological narrative of the history of the role of disease in the British Army and developments in military medicine; useful for basic administrative details.

  • Keevil, J. J., Christopher Lloyd, and J. L. S. Coulter. Medicine and the Navy, 1200–1900. 4 vols. London: Livingstone, 1957–1963.

    Comprehensive overview of health and medical conditions in Britain’s Royal Navy and merchant fleets. Volume 3: 1714–1815 provides the most detail on the effects of poor health on overseas campaigns.

  • Massons, José Maria. Historia de la sanidad militar española. Barcelona: Pomares-Corredor, 1994.

    Four-volume chronological overview of the history of Spanish military medicine, of which Volume 1 provides details on Spain’s early modern campaigns in America.

  • Menses, J. V. e. Armadas portuguesas: Apoio sanitário na época dos Descobrimentos. Lisbon, Portugal: Academia de Marinha, 1987.

    Outlines the health and welfare onboard Portuguese fleets, focusing on the 15th and 16th centuries, detailing diseases, food, medicine, and the responsibilities of surgeons and other medical personnel.

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