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William Perry (1747-1827)


During the late eighteenth century there were two Royal Navy surgeons called William Perry.  One of them sailed with James Cook in Endeavour.  It is unclear whether all the information presented in this article connects solely to the Perry who sailed with Cook.


Cook’s William Perry was baptised in Chiswick, West London, on 7 April, 1747.  He was the son of William and Anne Perry.  He attended St. Paul’s School, London.  The school records show him joining on 22 November 1754 “aged 7, son of Ann P., widow of Chiswick”.  He joined Endeavour on 11 June, 1768, as surgeon’s mate.1  The muster recorded him as being 21 years old, and from Chiswick in West London.  He remained surgeon's mate until 6 November, 1770, when he was promoted to surgeon in place of William Munkhouse, who had just died in Jakarta.  James Cook noted that Perry “is equally well if not better skilld in his profession”.2 


After the Endeavour voyage, Perry, who was keenly interested in scurvy, prepared a report, in the form of a letter, on the health of the ship’s company.3  He described the success of attempts to prevent and cure scurvy.  Perry indicated that he was one of five victims of scurvy on the passage to Tahiti from March to April, 1769.  He treated himself with wort, and recovered by the time they reached Tahiti.  Perry’s letter, forwarded to the Admiralty by Cook in July 1771, is reproduced below in its entirety.


The London printer T. Becket published an anonymous, unauthorized narrative of the Endeavour voyage in September, 1771.4  William Perry was one of several men suspected at the time of being its author.  There are letters from Perry to Joseph Banks pleading his innocence.  To help clear his name, Perry played detective to find out who had written the work.  James Magra, who sailed in Endeavour as an AB and midshipman, is now suspected of having been the author of the account.5  He later changed his surname to Matra.


After the Endeavour voyage, Perry was transferred, like Cook and several other members of her company, to HMS Scorpion.6  He joined her on 20 September, 1771, as surgeon, with Samuel Witchingham as his surgeon’s mate.  However, when Cook and about thirty other men later joined HMS Drake (soon renamed Resolution) in prepar-ation for Cook’s Second Voyage, Perry was not among them.  He later served in other ships, Dispatch, Salisbury and Superbe, before retiring from active service in the year 1782.


Perry married Elizabeth Wrench (née Burbank), a widow, in 1778, in Cape Town.  She had been baptised at Horbling, Lincolnshire, on 28 November, 1752.  The Perrys’ first daughter was born during the sea passage back to Britain.  The Perrys had eight children, with three daughters and two sons surviving to adulthood.  William Perry went on to live and practice medicine in Hillingdon, in West London.  He became interested in growing fruit, and had some orchards there. 


From late 1807 through 1808, Perry contributed a series of short pieces to the Gentleman’s Magazine that provide an insight on events at Batavia (Jakarta) during Endeavour’s visit.  Written with the hindsight of 30 years they, perhaps, overplay Perry’s own role in events.  He also wrote letters to the Gentleman’s Magazine about fruit and medical matters.  The play, “Trafalgar, or the Sailor’s Play”, published anonymously in 1807, was later attributed to Perry by his son. 


In March, 1792, Perry received an M.D. degree from St. Andrew’s University in Scotland.7  Colleagues John Hammond and William Alexander had sent certificates on his behalf, attesting to his skill and experience.  Perry appears to have had no prior formal medical training, so obtaining the M.D. would have been necessary for him to engage in the practice of medicine.


Elizabeth Perry died on 28 September, 1814, and was buried in Hillingdon churchyard.  Within a few months, William, now aged 67, married again.  On 1 February, 1815, he married Ann Ball at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London.  She died on 29 October, 1835, aged 73. 


William Perry died in 1827, leaving a will.8 


Daughters Ruth Anne and Penelope, neither of whom married, survived their father.  Daughter Caroline had married Captain John Hicks, and their family settled in Cornwall. 


The Perry’s oldest son, William, had become a cleric, but died before his father.  Reverend Perry and his wife, Harriet, had six children, all born on the Oxfordshire-Buckinghamshire border.  Harriet retired to Devon. 


There is some evidence that William Perry and his younger son, Septimus, did not always see eye-to-eye.  Various documents lodged with the family solicitor suggested long standing disagreements between them, and Septimus did not benefit significantly from his father’s will.  Septimus farmed in Surrey before returning to Hillingdon. 


I am grateful to Tony Simpson, who helped correct the information obtained in my research.  However, some uncertainty remains about the details of the lives of the two Royal Navy surgeons named William Perry. 


John Robson


  1. Cook’s Log, page 38, vol. 33, no 2 (2010).
  2. Cook’s Log, page 1219, vol. 18, no 4 (1995). 
  3. Cook’s Log, page 1316, vol. 19, no 3 (1996). 
  4. Journal of a voyage round the world in His Majesty’s Ship Endeavour.  London.  1771. 
  5. Cook’s Log, page 6, vol. 27, no 4 (2004). 
  6. Cook’s Log, page 23, vol. 34, no 4 (2011).
  7. Cook’s Log, page 12, vol. 28, no 2 (2005).
  8. The National Archives (TNA).  PROB 11/1727. 

Letter from Surgeon Perry to Lieutenant Cook


Sir, — The sanguine and well-grounded expectations of the certain efficacy the wort possesses to cure the sea scurvy, and the very great probability of that distemper raging at some time or other in the course of a long voyage, induced, I apprehend, the Rt. Honour’ble the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to send out a quantity of malt in the Endeavour, as well to determine and fix its character in that respect as through an humane and tender care for the preservation of the crew.  It may at first sight appear strange that I reckon this last motive secondary to the first, but a recollection of the ample and various assistance the same provident minds had afforded for that purpose will remove this seeming absurdity.


Sour krout, mustard, vinegar, wheat, inspissated orange and lemon juices, saloup, portable soup, sugar, melasses, vegetables (at all times when they could possibly be got), were some in constant, others in occasional use.  These were of such infinite service to the people in preserving them from a scorbutic taint that the use of the malt was, with respect to necessity, almost entirely precluded.  Again, cold bathing was encouraged and enforced by example.  The allowance of salt beef and pork was abridged from nearly the beginning of the voyage, and the sailors’ usual custom of mixing the salt beef fat with their flour, &c., strictly forbad.  Upon our leaving England, too, a stop was put to issuing butter and cheese, and throughout the voyage raisins were serv’d with the flour instead of pickled suet.


I have enumerated all the above preventives lest Mr. McBride, who, in page 175, reflects on sea surgeons perhaps not with the utmost candour, should suppose there must have happen’d more dangerous cases to have proved the virtues of his medicine upon than really have, and that some motives like those he has given still prevent a compliance with allowing it a fair trial.  What opportunities have occurr’d of using it have constantly been embraced; that more have not happen’d is, if a fault, the fault of the humanity of the Lords of the Admiralty and of the care of the captain of the ship.  But I am aware that Mr. McBride may object to my assertion of its having been allow’d a fair tryal, its being used by way of preservation.  If he is dissatisfied at this, it don’t, however, affect me, and Mr. Monkhouse’s death doubtless prevented sufficient reasons being given for his conduct in that particular.


Upon our leaving Madeira the capt. gave every man a quantity of onions.  In crossing the Equator a bilious disorder affected the ship’s company; it was general, but very slight.  To prevent scorbutic complaints next making their appearance, which is frequently the case after a colliquation of the juices by prior illnesses, the wort was first prepared, as directed, October the 23rd, 1768.  A quart a day was given to each of the convalescents; the valetudinarians, too, had the same quantity, which was also given to each of the cooks, who were supposed more obnoxious to scurvy from their duty ab’t the fire.  Here, then, it was used by way of prevention, and the consequence was our arrival at Rio Janeiro without a scorbutic symptom amongst us.


On our passage from this place to Le Maire’s Straits the wort was continued to our invalids, of whom we had three, one through age and two of broken constitutions from debaucheries.  At Terra del Fuego we collected wild celery, and every morning our breakfast was made of this herb and ground wheat and portable soup. January, 1769, we pass’d Cape Horn, all our men as free from scurvy as on our sailing from Plymouth.


Case 1st, March 14.—Richd. Hutchins, age 28, of an active, lively disposition and florid complexion, complained of his gums being sore, and of several small fungous ulcerations in one leg.  His gums were swell’d and painful upon pressure, but still adhering to the teeth.  The sores in the leg were seated abt. the ankle, were somewhat œdematous and of a livid circumference; his body was sufficiently open; did not find his appetite impair’d nor felt the usual lassitude.  He took a pint of wort pr. day, had portable soup, and was order’d to use flour in lieu of salt meat.  The wort gave him a stool more in the twenty-four hours without griping or uneasiness.  After the first ten days the gums were perfectly sound and the ulcers in the leg assuming a kindly aspect; promised a speedy cure, wch. was accordingly perfected in another week.  The wort was continued to April 8.


Case 2nd, March 24.—Wm. Wiltshire, marine, aged 27, complain’d of sore and bleeding gums; his teeth were loosen’d; he had no other scorbutic symptoms.  This man had a pint of wort, which quantity was repeated regularly every day till the 12th of April.  His complaint gradually mended, and after twelve days taking the med’cine were entirely removed.  The effects of the wort gently solutive only.


Case 3rd, April 2.—Saml. Jones, seaman, aged 26, naturally brisk and active, complain’d of having for some days been troubled with a dull heavy pain in his limbs; a lowness of spts. accompanied it, and a general weariness oppress’d the frame.  His stools were regular as in health, no rigidity in the tendons, nor was his appetite impair’d.  The next day he took a quart of the wort; this gave him three stools in the twenty-four hours, plentyful, loose, and offensive; his body was thus kept constantly open.  The discharge became less putrid, his pains went gradually off, and on the 12th (which was the last day of his taking the wort) not a man in the ship was more in spts. and lively than him.


Case 4, April 3.—I took a quart of the wort for some days before an unusual langour and lazyness had infested me; no posture was so easy as lying down, and a swelling of a phlegmonoid type had appeared on my left leg.  The part had been bruis’d many years before, and an induration had remained.  The integu-ments were discolour’d from the calf downward.  The apex of the tumour painful to the touch, but the rest hardly at all.  To this I applied a discutient plaister, and kept from lying down as much as possible.  The wort at first griped me, but not violently.  On the 6th I first observ’d amendment in the aspect of the tumour, the discolouration more circumscribed and the apex falling.  My spts. were indisputably more alert.  From this day I mended fast, and on the 12th left off the wort, being within sight of our port at Otaheite.  Where the tumour had been there was now a circle of a deep blue, and round that a light tinge of yellow.


When Hutchins complain’d, which was the first alarm, the wort was also order’d for our invalids, older people, cooks as before, and others of the men who were suspected of lax  solids and more dissolv’d state of the blood.  These continued it till the 12th of April without any shadow of scurvy.


From this time while at sea the wort became a part of our diet, so that, excepting five cases, three happening in port at New Holland and two while on the coast of New  Zealand, not a man more suffer’d any inconvenience from this distemper.  In the cases I have mention’d a trial was made of the robs, and attended with success.


It is impossible for me to say what was most conducive to our preservation from scurvy, so many being the preventives used; but from what I have seen the wort perform, from its mode of operation, from Mr. McBride’s reasoning,  I shall not hesitate a moment to declare my opinion, viz., that the malt is the best medicine I know, the inspissated orange and lemon juices not even excepted.

William Perry

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 14, volume 38, number 3 (2015).

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