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Resurrecting Dr. Moss: The Life and Letters of a Royal Navy Surgeon, Edward Lawton Moss MD, RN, 1843-1880

By William Barr, editor

Review By Cary Collins

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 170 Summer 2011  | p. 183-185

Biographies of historical figures of the second rank often supply the foundational material and needed contextual support upon which larger studies are based. That certainly promises to be the case with this highly engaging and informative exploration into the life and death of the Dublin-born Edward Lawton Moss. Moss served as a surgeon in the British Royal Navy and perished at the still youthful age of thirty-seven in a tragic and controversial shipwreck off the coast of Barbados. Sadly, author Paul Appleton died suddenly just months after submitting his manuscript for publication, and thus a skilled craftsman was deprived of the opportunity of shepherding his work into final book form. On a more sanguine note, William Barr has filled in admirably in his stead, and Appleton no doubt would be gratified at the result. 

In a stretch as medical officer that spanned sixteen years, Edward Moss experienced and documented a life of high adventure, a potentiality that likely had been the animating force behind his having enlisted in the Royal Navy in the first place. But he also came from a large family of limited means that relied upon him financially, and he possessed an inquisitive mind that could be satisfied in the various exotic locations to which he would be assigned and the explorations in which he would take part. The core of Appleton’s narrative, and a key aspect of the construction of his book, derives from a vast array of surviving letters written by Moss to his mother and his wife from the sites of his many duty stations. Appleton reproduces these primary documents verbatim, and some of the longer correspondence can consume several pages. Moss, as presented in his own words, proves a keen-eyed observer of events unfolding around him as well as a colourful and candid storyteller. It is this effective combination, along with the inclusion of an exquisite collection of sketches and watercolours, that conveys with élan and clarity the major phases of Moss’s life. Among his many talents, which included naturalist, writer, administrator, amateur scientist, and historian, Moss was also a formidable artist. 

The centrepiece of Resurrecting Dr. Moss and of Moss’s medical career was his role as assistant naval surgeon on the Nares British Arctic Expedition of 1875-76. Here Appleton and Moss both shine, painting a riveting portrait of the exploration, from its heady formative moments to its heartbreaking and deadly scurvy-marred end. Moss, having already come under enemy fire and suffered the loss of his ship in an incidence of gunboat diplomacy off Haiti in 1865, and for a number of years having been assigned to a troopship that transported soldiers to foreign outposts and military hotspots, acquitted himself well in a harrowing trial that tested men’s souls to their marrow. Four Nares crew members were lost and the entire expedition team barely escaped with their lives in this ill-guided attempt to reach the geographic North Pole (although one of the sledging teams did set a farthest-north record for that date). For Moss, his lifework grew out of the extreme hardships endured. From his experience he published his book Shores of the Polar Sea (1878), which has come to be a highly sought-after and valuable chronicle of that troubled journey. 

Students of BC history will be most interested in the two and one-half years that Moss served as head of the Royal Naval Hospital in Esquimalt. While deployed there, the young surgeon took a “run-down collection of ramshackle buildings and turned them into an efficient medical facility” (64). According to Appleton, those “hospital renovations and medical initiatives” make Moss “well deserving of credit for establishing one of the earliest medical institutions on the West Coast of Canada” (56). Those were formative years both for him and for the young province. During his tenure in Esquimalt from 1872 to 1875 Moss married and marked the birth of his first child. He also came into contact with troops garrisoned in British Columbia in support of the Pig War, although, disappointingly, few details survive of Moss’s interactions with them. 

A melancholy permeates much of Resurrecting Dr. Moss. The book addresses heavy topics such as scurvy, smallpox, tuberculosis, venereal diseases, and other forms of illness and disease as well as, compounding the prevailing sombreness, the recurring themes of separation, suffering, and loss, with the latter including the deaths of Moss and even Appleton. Moss and 280 fellow crew members lost their lives when the hms Atalanta sank in the British West Indies in early 1880. In the inquiry that followed, it was determined that the training vessel had been unfit for sea duty and should have been scuttled and rebuilt and not simply overhauled as had been done prior to its launch. The tragedy snuffed out the future service and contributions of a compelling personality and rising member of the medical corps, an impressive, talented individual who, in the words of Appleton, “may not have been a major figure in the fields of nineteenth-century medicine, art, or polar exploration, but [whose] life and career exemplified the best traditions of the Royal Navy Medical Branch during the Victorian Era” (206). It should be added that, through the publication of this estimable volume, Moss has been retrieved from the margins of relative obscurity and, for that, Paul C. Appleton is owed our lasting debt.

Resurrecting Dr. Moss: The Life and Letters of a Royal Navy Surgeon, Edward Lawton Moss MD, RN, 1843-1880
By Paul C. Appleton; edited by William Barr
Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2008. 268 pp. $42.95 paper