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Diorama showing naval surgery in the 1800s, England, 1986

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In larger ships, the ‘orlop’ deck was usually the lowest deck. Situated below the waterline, it was very dark and cramped. During battles it was often transformed into an area for surgery and medical treatment. This diorama shows an imagined scene during a sea battle from the 1800s. A sailor is having his leg amputated because a large piece of wood is embedded in it – probably a common injury when the wooden structures of the ship were hit by enemy fire. Anaesthetics were not yet in use so sailors had only alcohol for pain relief and a piece of leather to bite on when the pain was at its height. A tub beside the ship’s surgeon is already filled with limbs. At this time, sailors were treated in the order they arrived rather than by their injuries – today they would be prioritised according to the severity of their injuries. Infections and blood poisoning spread easily as the same equipment and sponges were used on everyone without being washed after each patient was treated.

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    Glossary: anaesthetic

    An agent that causes insensitivity to pain. Applied to either the whole body (general anaesthetic) or a particular area or region (local anaesthetic).

    Glossary: amputation

    Removal of part of, or a whole limb by surgery. Used to control pain or the spread of disease in the affected limb.

    Glossary: diorama

    A model with three-dimensional objects, often sculpture, with a realistic painted background.