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Military Lecture – The Great Sickness of 1740: War, Typhus, and the Royal Navy

April 22, 2021

The Capture of Puerto Bello, 21 November 1739 by George Chambers, Senior, 1836

The Capture of Puerto Bello, 21 November 1739 by George Chambers, Senior, 1836, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich BHC0355


Paul Mansell presents, The Great Sickness of 1740: War, Typhus, and the Royal Navy.

In 1739, after two and a half decades of relative peace, Spain and Britain entered into the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-48). This war became subsumed into the War of Austrian Succession 1740-48) and has not received a lot of attention from historians. The Royal Navy had been actively recruiting seaman since the spring of 1739 and hostilities broke out in the summer. The navy found it had an unexplained shortage of active personnel despite doubling the number of seamen. Ships were not ready, military operations were delayed, and Walpole’s government demanded answers for the disarray. What stymied the navy was an alarming number of ill seamen and the cases mounted all through 1740. Sick quarters in several parts of Britain were completely overwhelmed by virulent epidemic typhus known as the “Great Sickness.”

Typhus was an unsolvable problem for 18th century medicine, being a contagion that caused record levels of mortality without any hope of a cure. The epidemic is largely forgotten now, but by the end of 1742 it became the worst typhus epidemic of the century after it spread from the naval towns to the rest of Britain. The navy’s response to the outbreak is instructive because it demonstrates both the pitfalls of not responding adequately at the outset of a crisis and the successes of coordinated and targeted measures of prevention that remain effective today. The episode provides an example of how an organization under extreme stress managed to remain functional despite devastating numbers of incapacitated personnel.

Offered in partnership with the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies.

Did you miss the live event? Watch Military Lecture: The Great Sickness of 1740 below:


About Paul Mansell:

Photo of Paul Mansell smiling while sitting on a bench near a river in a european city. He has short light grey hair and is wearing thin glasses.

Paul Mansell studies military, medical, and early modern European history at Wilfrid Laurier University. His PhD dissertation examines the reactions of medical authorities and the Royal Navy to the worst British typhus epidemic of the 18th century. His interests also include the history of technology, building upon his background in electro-mechanical engineering, aerospace, and military aircraft.


April 22, 2021
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