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Sir William Beatty (1773 - 1842):
Surgeon


Sir William Beatty of the Naval Medical Service was the surgeon on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 who attended the mortally wounded Admiral Lord Nelson. 

William Beatty was the oldest of the six children of James Beatty of HM Revenue Service, and Anne (née Smyth). Born in April 1773 in the Waterside district, Londonderry, and schooled locally probably at Foyle Academy, he was apprenticed, or simply attached, to his uncle George Smyth, a naval surgeon then on half pay and living locally.  After formal instruction and ‘walking the wards’ probably in either London or Glasgow he passed the examinations of the London Company of Surgeons (5 May 1791) and was warranted as second-mate on Dictator transferring to the 32-gun Iphigenia in September.  Until the war with revolutionary France ended with the Peace Treaty of Amiens in March 1802 when he was briefly put on half-pay, Beatty was almost continuously at sea mainly in the West Indies station which included the period of the decimations of the yellow fever outbreak in he mid-1790s, serving in frigates, viz. Hermione (1793), Flying Fish (1793-4), Alligator (1794-5), Pomona (1795) - on which now qualified as a surgeon for ‘second-rate’ ships-of-the-line (those with 90-98 guns and a complement of at least 700 men), he was charged with “disrespect and contemptuous behaviour” to the captain, Lord Augustus Fitzroy, and court-martialled but acquitted – Amethyst (1795) until wrecked on Alderney in December, and then Alcmene (1796-1801) on the prize-rich Atlantic approaches.  Alcmene was to join Nelson’s ships in the blockade of the French army in Egypt and in evacuating the king and court of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies from Naples in January 1799, but was later damaged and Beatty was transferred to Resistance until the end of the war.  When hostilities recommenced in May 1803 he was warranted to the line-of-battle Spencer in July but transferred to Nelson’s flagship Victory in December 1804 at Nelson’s request to replace another Ulsterman, George Magrath (1775-1857) (q.v.) recently appointed to the hospital in Gibraltar. 

The British victory at Trafalgar and Nelson’s death are well recorded.  Beatty and two assistants, neither of whom had battle experience, dealt under appalling conditions with upwards of 100 wounded during the battle, eleven having major limb amputations.  Nelson was fatally wounded by a musket ball which “struck the epaulette on his left shoulder and penetrated the chest”. Beatty removed the bullet (which he later mounted and added as a fop to his watch chain), but Nelson died three hours later. On Beatty’s instructions the remains were preserved in a barrel of brandy for Victory’s return to Portsmouth (on 11 December) where he performed an autopsy, and on 9 January 1806 he had a prominent place at the state funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral. 

Beatty was now posted to the hospital ship Sussex and when in January 1807 he published his Authoritative Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson (London, 1807) he became something of a celebrity. Promotion was rapid; to Physician to the channel fleet, a coveted prestige position, in September 1806 when only thirty-three and, since a physician’s qualification was mandatory, on 28 February 1806 be obtained an MD (on testimonials) degree from the University of Aberdeen, i.e. a degree by sponsorship of two distinguished doctors and the payment of a fee of about £40, one of Beatty’s sponsors being fellow Ulsterman William Babington, a post he held until the end of the war in 1815 when he retired on half pay. 

Since Napoleon’s first abdication in April 1814 Beatty had contemplated civilian practice and had received the Licence (2 August) and Fellowship (1 November 1814) of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (FRCPE), and after retirement attended medical classes in Edinburgh and added the further qualification of MD (on testimonials) of St. Andrew’s University (14 October 1817) and the Licence of the Royal College of Physicians of London (LRCP) on 22 December.   Honours quickly followed: Fellow of the Linnaean Society and of The Royal Society in April 1818 when he was introduced as ”physician extraordinary to the Prince of Wales”.  He did not however enter practice in London but in Plymouth until his recall to naval service as Physician to Greenwich Hospital in September 1822 to run the medical department which he did until 1839.  On return to London he had become a director of the newly founded Clerical and Medical Life Assurance Company (1825-1842) and later of the London and Greenwich Railway Company (1833-1839) and a member of the organising committee for London’s Nelson’s Pillar (1838-9), for all of which he was well qualified and was an assiduous member.  He was knighted on 25 May 1831, fittingly by “The Sailor King”, William IV. 

Beatty retired in 1839 and in 1840 rented 43, York Street off Baker Street in London where, unmarried, he was looked after by three live-in servants, and where he died of “acute bronchitis” on 25 March 1842 aged 68 and was buried in an unmarked vault in Kensal Green cemetery.  Though single and with a retirement naval income of at least £900 p.a. (some £100,000+ in today’s money) together with what remained from his considerable prize-money mostly garnered when on the Atlantic approaches on Alcmene, he left only a modest estate residue of £1,545 due seemingly to an earlier modest largesse to two of his sisters and the continued purchase of many books and manuscripts, though his library was broken up and no catalogue or inventory survives.  He probably never returned to Ireland after 1794.



Born: April 1773
Died: 25 March 1842
Peter Froggatt
Bibliography:
Brockliss, L, Cardwell, J, and Moss, M: Nelson’s Surgeon: William Beatty, Naval Medicine, and the Battle of Trafalgar (Oxford University Press, 2005); Dictionary of Irish Biography, 2009; Clarke, RSJ  A Directory of Ulster Doctors (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2013; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004