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Medicine cabinet belonging to Nelson’s surgeon goes up for auction

The opened cabinet with its medical contents
23 December 2020
The medicine cabinet which belonged to Lord Nelson’s surgeon Sir William Beatty who attended him as he died has emerged for sale.

It is dated 1803, just two years before the Battle of Trafalgar during which Nelson was fatally shot on board his flagship HMS Victory.

The wooden apothecary case was bought some time ago from a private collector by Charles Wallrock who is now selling it through the online platform 2Covet.

The portable cabinet stands just over ten inches high and opens to reveal drawers and shelves, with two original glass jars remaining.

Beatty was unable to save Nelson, who died knowing that his forces had defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets.

The cabinet would have contained a variety of tinctures from laudanum to cures for venereal disease.

Beatty was appointed to Victory in December 1804 having previously served on a number of ships.

Mr Wallrock, who runs Wick Antiques in Lymington, Hants, said: “This is a wonderful survivor from the Napoleonic wars.

“It is dated 1803 so it is very likely that it was on board Victory at Trafalgar.

“The case is portable with a handle on top so Beatty was able to carry it around. On it is written his details: ‘William Beatty, warranted surgeon. RN. 1803.’

“Beatty was with Nelson from when he was brought down below decks after being shot to when he died. Both Nelson and Beatty knew there was no hope of survival.

“The surgeon wrote a detailed account of what happened and insisted that Nelson’s final words were ‘thank God I have done my duty’.”

It is a fascinating glimpse into the past, not only of naval history but medical history

Charles Wallrock

It was Beatty who arranged for Nelson’s body to be placed in a barrel of brandy.

“On his return to England, Beatty performed the autopsy on board Victory and subsequently bequeathed the musket ball which killed the admiral to Queen Victoria.

“During the battle Beatty carried out a number of amputations, mainly of legs that had been shattered. His skills and those of his assistants saved many lives.

“This cabinet would have been full of tinctures, potions and medicines that were required as a matter of routine on a man o’ war such as Victory.

“It is a fascinating glimpse into the past, not only of naval history but medical history.

“Beatty was an Irish surgeon who rose through the ranks and served on a number of ships before becoming the surgeon on Victory just over a year before Trafalgar.

“He went on to become Physician of the Channel Fleet and was active in promoting the new vaccine against smallpox.

“Later he was appointed Physician at Greenwich Hospital and also Physician Extraordinary to King George IV in Scotland.

“He served on the committee that organised the building of Nelson’s column and remained an important member of London’s business and scientific community. He died in 1842 aged 68.

“His medicine chest will appeal to all collectors of Napoleonic-era artefacts, Nelsonia and those with an interest in the history of medicine.”

The cabinet has an asking price of £16,500.

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