At around 1.15 pm, on 21st October 1805, a small projectile (shown in the above engraving), fired at a range of about 50ft, passed into Admiral Horatio Nelson’s left shoulder and, ricocheting against bone, tore a path through his upper body before passing into his lower back. The musket ball took with it fragments of the his coat and its epaulette which remained attached after it came to rest.
Nelson died a few hours later as the Battle of Trafalgar drew to a close, and after prolonged preservation, in first brandy and then distilled wine, and after much public procession and fanfare, his body was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral on the 9th January 1806.
Here is an invitation to the funeral from our collections. The recipient was Dr Leonard Gillespie, “Physician to Lord Nelson”. Indeed Gillespie had actually been assigned to the post of Physician-General to the Fleet by Nelson whilst abroad HMS Victory – the ship he was officially attached to. But while Nelson was attended by the Victory’s surgeon William Beatty on that fatal day, where was Gillespie?
Dr Gillespie had overseen an enlightened approach to on-board health, which just prior to Trafalgar he described as “unexampled perhaps in any squadron heretofore employed on a foreign station”. He had also written an influential pamphlet on the Preservation of the Health of Seamen, which put particular emphasis on a good diet, but in October 1805 Gillespie himself was not a well man. As Nelson was taking that fatal shot, Gillespie was ashore, laid low with gout!
While scurvy is the dietary complaint traditionally associated with life at sea in the early 1800s, gout was not uncommon. Linked in part to diets rich in meat, seafood and alcohol, the naval officer class was prone to the condition. Although Gillespie missed his masters final moments, his gouty absence was no cause for shame. Indeed, according to William Beatty, it was only through “abstaining for the space of nearly two years from animal food, and wine and all other fermented drink; confining his diet to vegetables, and commonly milk and water” that Nelson overcame his own bout…of gout.
As for Gillespie, he outlived Nelson by nearly three decades, dying at 83 after a long retirement in Paris. However, in a curious postscript, ‘Dr Leonard Gillespie’ emerged a century later in a very different context. Firstly in books, then on cinema and TV screens, as the elderly mentor to the titular young medic in the hugely successful Dr Kildare. In this clip Gillespie (played by Lionel Barrymore) is the one pooh-poohing the idea of ‘socialised medicine’. Hmmmm.