Nelson's Injuries and Illnesses
Nelson's first sea voyage was to the Caribbean, where he experienced his first ailment – dreadful seasickness, which he suffered for the rest of his life.
Indian Ocean, 1775 Nelson suffered his first attack of malaria, which was so severe that he nearly died. During his delirium he had the famous vision of a radiant, guiding orb and a premonition that: ‘I will be a hero’.
June 1777, during recruiting and impressments duty for the Lowestoffe in Portsmouth, Nelson collapsed with another attack of malaria.
Nicaraguan jungle, March 1780 Nelson was told that he was suffering from gout in his chest; this may have been a misdiagnosis of the recurrent malaria.
1780, San Juan, Nelson was suffering from dysentery, yellow fever, poisoning (a toxic fruit from the machineel tree had fallen into the water) and pains in his chest.
London May 1781, Nelson’s left arm and left leg were troubling him and the fingers of his left hand were white, numb and swollen. Bearing this in mind, it seems a shame that he would later lose his right arm.
In 1782, during a voyage over the Atlantic, Nelson and his crew came down with scurvy after having no fresh fruit or vegetables for weeks. The scurvy was a repetitive ailment and in Nelson’s later years he worked keenly to eradicate it amongst his crews.
West Indies 1784 a recurrent attack of malaria. The feverish sweating made Nelson's head so uncomfortable he shaved his hair off and wore a wig.
On the return voyage from the West Indies in November 1787 Nelson fell so ill with fever that a keg of rum was set by to preserve his body in if he died.
Bastia, May 1794, Nelson was almost killed when a huge shower of earth from a heavy shot landed on him. Only days later he was hit in the face by earth and rocks when a shell exploded. He wrote ‘I got a little hurt this morning’, when in fact he had been blinded in his right eye.
Santa Cruz in Tenerife, July 1797, Nelson received a musket ball shot just above his right elbow. He declares to his crew 'I am killed!' The ship’s surgeon amputated the dangling forearm and gave him opium for the pain. Half an hour later he was giving orders for the battle, dictating letters and trying out his new signature. A month later he was back in London with an infected stump that led to septicaemia, which can be fatal. Georgian medicine had no remedy for septicaemia, but fortunately Nelson survived.
1st August 1798, Aboukir Bay in Egypt, Nelson had a 'damned toothache' before battle, probably caused by his earlier problems with scurvy, which had made his gums soft and spongy and his teeth loose (Nelson had lost so many teeth that his face had partly caved in). During the battle, he was hit above his right eye by a fragment of shot, 'I am killed; remember me to my wife' he announces. Bleeding profusely, pale and concussed, he carried on with the battle. Immediately afterwards he came down with fever. He told people that his head was ‘splitting, splitting, splitting’ and proclaimed that ‘for 18 hours my life was thought to be past hope….I am weak in body and mind, both from this cough and the fever’. He suffered from blinding headaches for the rest of his life. He also (arguably) displayed some erratic behaviour and errors of judgement after this injury.
1799, Palermo, Sicily, Nelson was suffering from depression, headaches, sickness, indigestion, palpitations and breathlessness, which he believed to be heart attacks.
January 1801 Nelson’s doctor was concerned with Nelson’s habit of spending much of the day writing letters with only a candle for light and gave him a green eyeshade, made him bathe his eye in cold water each hour and forbade letter-writing and alcohol.
The Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 saw Nelson suffering from ‘heatstroke’ and vomiting; he was convinced that death was imminent. The illness was severe but not long-lasting.
Gibraltar, 1802, Nelson wrote to Emma that he was suffering from seasickness, toothache, dysentery, fever, a heavy cold and a numb left hand.
About 1pm on 21st October 1805, just off Cape Trafalgar, Nelson was shot through the shoulder and spine and stated: 'I have but a short time to live; my back is shot through.' He died at around 4.30pm.