Best Medical Books

From Ocean Navigator #82
May/June 1997
Next to your copy of Chapman’s, and adjacent to Bowditch, you should have a good medical reference book to help you address medical situations at sea. It is not an exaggeration to say that the right book may help save a life, possibly your own.

A good medical book should be: 1) current, concise, and easy to read; 2) written for your level of expertise; and 3) matched to the capability of your ship’s medical locker.

The books listed below cover a broad range of medicine and capability. Choose the one you think fits you best. Above all, make sure you actually read it.

Where There Is No Doctorby David Werner

Originally written as a training and reference book for village health care workers in the Mexican highlands, this book is possibly the most widely published layman’s medical book in the world. Though the mariner may not have much interest in community health education, sanitation, hygiene, pediatrics, or prenatal care, the chapters on evaluating a sick person, first aid, and the common sicknesses of different age groups are excellent. The principle strengths of the book are its illustrations and simple, clear language. This is an excellent resource for crews with young children and is also a good home-school special interest book.

The Waterlover’s Guide to Marine Medicineby Paul Gill, Jr., M.D.

Probably the most enjoyably written medical book I have ever come across, this book covers every medical topic related to life at sea. Each section is preceded by a historical anecdote or quote lending curiosity and relevance to the text. Covering basic traumatic injuries, common illnesses, and the special environmental hazards of the sea (like sting ray envenomation and near drowning), this is an excellent book for anyone who learns better from a story than dry text. Inexpensive, concise, and compact, it’s my first pick for the cruising couple or family. Its only limitation (and its salvation) is that it only discusses what you are most likely to encounter.

Wilderness Medicine, Beyond First Aidby William Forgey, M.D.

Similar in readability to The Waterlover’s Guide, Wilderness Medicine expands the reader’s ability to treat illness in a potentially hostile environment. The book’s strong point is its emphasis on assessment of injuries and physical complaints. This is followed by chapters on the common illnesses of each different body system. The book is forthright, concise, and well written. It does not have the breadth of marine-related illness found elsewhere, but its general principles are sufficient to get you through. Sections on managing orthopedic injuries and infectious disease are top notch. This is a solid book if you plan on cruising and touring as you go.

The Ship Captain’s Medical Guide Dept. of Transport, HMSO Publications

The only medical book actually written and designed for an ocean-going vessel crewed by laymen, the first edition was published in 1868. This book assumes that you can take a simple but relevant medical history and perform an accurate physical exam, skills certainly within the range of a competent layman. Armed with your findings, the book is arranged to help you arrive at a diagnosis. Tricky areas like diseases of the chest and abdomen are presented in chart format, enabling the reader to quickly sort through life-threatening conditions requiring immediate attention. It has an excellent section on first aid and care of the injured, complemented by good-quality illustrations. Lastly, this book has withstood the test of time. It is not an entertaining read, but as a layman oceanic sailor, if you are only going to buy one book, this is probably it.

Wilderness Medicine by Paul Auerbach, M.D.

At 1,500 pages and weighing approximately eight pounds, the latest edition of Wilderness Medicine is a handful. It is certainly the greatest single collection of wilderness medical knowledge in the world. It is written for the competent layman. There is no subject left uncovered, and the quality and detail of the information is superb. The chapters on survival at sea, travel medicine, and marine environmental health hazards are the best out there. For the sailor there may be too much information about unrelated topics like emergency veterinary medicine or altitude sickness. Nevertheless, this book is my most frequent source of information when preparing sailors for the medical hazards of a long voyage. Costing $165, this book may be too pricey, but if you ever want one book that could take you around the world through any environment or circumstance, this is it.

Dan Carlin, M.D., is an emergency room doctor in Maryland and the founder of Voyager Medicine.

By Ocean Navigator