The sailor during the Age of Sail rather epitomized the concept of “work hard, play hard.” When at sea, he could be called on deck at all hours in all weather to set or reef sail. When in port and allowed ashore, or even if he wasn’t allowed ashore and the ship went “out of discipline” he engaged in Biblical levels of debauchery. Naturally, the “Portsmouth brutes” that one would expect to think nothing of spending days and nights between decks of a man o’ war with 28-inches of space allocate per hammock brought more than ambiance on board. They also brought syphilis.
From the early 16th century syphilis had been at epidemic levels in Europe. The origins are unclear, Wikipedia gives the best rundown on the various theories though I think a lot of smart people are crawling way out on a limb to avoid considering that the Evil Europeans may have picked up the clap in the pristine New World.
Until the discovery of antibiotics syphilis was a chronic and, for about half of those infected, ultimately fatal disease. This doesn’t mean cures weren’t attempted. By the late 18th century medical science had concluded that mercury calomel, Hg2Cl2, a compound known to Civil War buffs as “blue mass”.
This regime continued to be prescribed well into the 20th century.
Did mercury actually cure syphilis? Who knows. When one looks at the natural progress of the disease, going from the primary stage to the latent stage probably gave the illusion of a cure. And it is rather hard to believe that very many of the recipients of the cure were able to claim with certainty that they were never again exposed to the possibility of a new infection.
The side effects of mercury poisoning seem to be what drew the attention of the medical establishment. In an era which physicians believed mightily in biles and humors, the ability of mercury to stimulate the salivary glands and act as a diuretic and purgative was simply the cat’s meow. Other interesting side effects were bleeding gums, loose teeth, the lips taking on a grey color, chest pain, and kidney damage. Some novelists say that the mercury caused the teeth to turn grey. This may or may not be accurate.
Switching from epidemiology back to the Age of Sail, medicine in the fleet was an interesting hodge podge of socialized medicine and private enterprise. A surgeon was under no obligation to treat a seaman with venereal disease, but he was allowed to charge for the treatment. HMS Victory’s surgeon, William Beatty, charged 15s per cure. This amount was deducted from the unlucky sailor’s wages and when Victory paid off the surgeon was paid.