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Dr. Ferguson was from Paisley, Scotland and signed on as the surgeon of Sam Bellamy's ship, the Mary Anne, in St. Croix in November 1716. Since a man of his expertise would have been prized among a pirate crew, he may not have signed on willingly. However, considering the political climate in his native land at the time, he may have found a pirate's life to be an attractive one.
Upon the death of Queen Anne in 1714, Parliament imported her second cousin, Georg Ludwig of Hanover, from Germany and crowned him King George I. Some Britons, particularly in Scotland, thought that the crown should have been passed to Anne's half-brother, James Stuart. In 1715, a revolution was fought against the German king to restore the Stuarts to the British throne. When this uprising failed, some took to the sea. Perhaps Ferguson had served as a surgeon in the rebellion and fled Scotland to avoid political retribution.
This was an exciting, albeit gruesome, time in Western medicine. While some in the medical trade still held fast to theories put forward by the ancient Greeks and Romans, others were approaching questions of treatment from a more scientific standing. Usually, a surgeon's area of expertise had to do with flesh, skin and bone, while the treatment of diseases fell to physicians. On board a ship, these lines weren't quite as clear. A ship's surgeon had to be a medical jack-of-all-trades. One of his primary duties was the treatment of the battle wounded. In a time before anesthesia, antiseptics and antibiotics, surgery could be just as deadly as the malady it was meant to treat. A surgeon's skill was often measured by how quickly he could saw off a limb and then cauterize the wound with a red-hot axe head.
Of all the diseases of the age of piracy, one of the most deadly to any sailor was the dreaded "gray death," better known as scurvy. Several theories as to its cause were put forward—from an excess of black bile to a lazy nature manifesting itself in the sufferer. While some doctors had written that taking the juice of certain fruits could cure scurvy, the general consensus as to its cause at this time was a lack of fresh food. Aboard a pirate ship in unfriendly waters, the sailor's diet was dependent on the food supply looted from other ships. If his diet contained no vitamin C, scurvy would set in, resulting in extreme weakness and lethargy, bleeding mouths, old wounds opening, previously-healed bones re-breaking, and eventually death. From the time of Columbus to the mid-1800s, over 2,000,000 sailors died of this horrible disease.
Dr. Ferguson went down with Whydah on April 26, 1717.
Michael Ritchie is a Minneapolis-based actor and improviser. His credits include work at the Jungle and Old Log Theaters. He is a City Pages "Best of the Twin Cities" award winner and is one of the founding members of the improv theater company Splendid Things.