”Give me a good whiskey and I’ll give it a try”
There is only one medical instruments case in the Åland Maritime Museum’s collections. It belonged to the legendary Gustaf Erikson – Ålands best-known ship owner. Every master had his own case. Being highest in rank on board also included being responsible for the crew’s medical needs.
The heaviness of that burden is displayed in the story of a serious accident on board the four-masted barque Marlborough Hill, en route from Africa to Australia. Seaman Virtanen slips on the upper top gallant yard. His frozen fingers grips in the air but catches nothing and he crashes onto the deck.
Here you can hear the story of how the master on board recoils at the sight of the badly wounded Virtanen and first mate Paul Lindroos who takes on the role as ship’s surgeon.
Case with medical instruments
Material: leather, velvet, metal
Previous owner: Gustaf Erikson
Made by: Albert Stille
Usage: aboard barque Southern Belle, on which Gustaf Erikson was master 1900-1905
Content: surgical equipment
Texts in the film
Iron barque Marlborough Hill is en route from Africa to Australia. It is rough weather. Seaman Virtanen slips and falls from the upper top gallant yard onto the deck. He seriously damages his thigh. The master can’t handle his role as chief medical. The first mate is forced to act ship’s surgeon. The following soundtrack was made in 1974 by Jan Forssell, Paul Lindroos’ nephew.
“They came carrying the lad and called for me and second mate came and said he’d fallen down, Virtanen was his name. But he was from Eckerö, a small thin boy. I came out and first felt his head. And thought there is nothing to do about it, because it’ll be smashed. But there was nothing wrong with the head. And then one took the arms and tested, but there was nothing broken in them, and then one took the legs and the spine and the chest, but didn’t see anything only those blood-stained rags… there was blood running from it and… Well, what were we supposed to do? And it was heavy weather so the ship swerved. One had to hold fast and hold him fast too. But, we thought, what are we to do with the man? Well, at least we decided that we had to try to do something to that wound and that’s first and foremost the master’s business, of course. But he said: – no, I can’t, I can’t.
-Well, I said, not that I’ve done it before either, but give me a good whiskey and I’ll give it a try.
And the man, he was put on the saloon table. One could hardly stand there, there were two men standing holding him and leaning against the table and the bulkhead to stand steadily and for the man not to fall from there. Myself stood leaning with my stomach against the table, because otherwise one would have needed the other hand to hold on with but I had a man who stood and held his hand against the bulkhead, by the wall, and on my back. So that I stood steady and could use both my hands. But, that was all in a state of mind that it would make little difference, that he would die nonetheless. Tomorrow we will wrap him in sailcloth and send him down, that it isn’t very good. But, as said, it was bad weather and the ship veered and it was just hell, I tell you.
I took a crooked needle that was there, but almost impossible to hold. There was fat under the skin, so it was so terribly slippery that I had to take that needle driver and try again and push, when I went through the muscle, that they seem to go together in a way. And pulled a couple of times and tried to get it there. And then, try to clean up as best one could. There was a disinfectant, Xeroform, so I guess that was what we washed and dried it up with. It smelt like hell, that Xeroform. But we did put some bandages on it and whatever clothes we found that we put over and then we let him lie on a sofa in the saloon. He didn’t die and he didn’t say anything, but he mumbled. Day by day went by and he didn’t die, no. After about a week, he began to answer. And we said: – you’ve fallen from the rig.
– No, he said. He’s never done that! he said. Anyway, it got clearer and clearer, so he said:
– Yes, I’m starting to remember… I was up there, furling the top gallant yard. But I never got to the lee side?
– No, because you fell, I said.
Eventually we arrived in Australia in the heavy weather and came up to Melbourne roads, and first we got the quarantine police on board and then we said:
-Take him to hospital and have him examined, because this was stitched up under difficult circumstances and it happened about a month ago. A few hours later it was our turn to go up Yarra River and to Melbourne. When I got to the quay:
-How on earth are you here?
-Well, they drove me out, so I called the driver.
Next day I went up to the hospital and asked to see the doctor who had examined him and met him and said:
-How on earth did you release that man?
-Well, there was nothing to do, he said, everything was good. We congratulate you on doing such a good job, he said.
I haven’t seen the man since then. But I’ve heard that he’s been in Sweden and sailed as steward. So I thought it would be interesting to see what his behind looks like after one stitched him together, what is it, 50 years ago? But I guess he did alright in life, I doubt he got any harm from that.”
After 50 years in Australia, Virtanen returns to Åland in 1975. He has built roads in Australia and during the war he fought against the Japanese.
He is interviewed in the local newspaper. Paul Lindroos sees the article and contacts the paper. Virtanen and Lindroos later have a pleasant reunion.