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North Devon in 100 Objects: 2. The Naval Surgeon’s Coat

A navy blue frock coat with two columns of nine gold buttons running down the front and two gold buttons on the cuff of each sleeve. The inside of the coat is a cream colour.

This navy blue frock coat belonged to Dr Simon Gage Britton. The buttons of the coat are decorated with snakes climbing a staff, a symbol still used by the British Medical Association and countless other doctors’ organisations around the world.  It represents the rod of Asclepius, a Greek god associated with healing.

Born in Bristol in 1782, Simon Britton studied medicine and surgery at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. He qualified in 1805 and joined the Royal Navy as a surgeon.  His ship, the schooner Pickle was part of Nelson’s battle fleet.

On October 21st 1805 Nelson’s fleet engaged with the French at the Battle of Trafalgar.  The Battle was a conclusive win for Britain, but Nelson himself was fatally wounded.  Dr      Britton’s Pickle journal records that he was moved to the flagship Victory in the evening, to assist the ship’s surgeon William Beatty who was caring for Lord Nelson as he lay dying on the deck after being fatally shot. After Trafalgar he moved on to other ships until 1814, when he retired from the Navy.

After working for nine years in Bristol, he moved to Barnstaple, practising medicine from his home in Newport.  In 1831 the recently opened North Devon Infirmary was in need of more physicians and Dr Britton was suggested. The existing doctors did not trust anatomists and called him “a horse doctor from Bristol”. Despite resignations and a mass walkout, Dr Britton was finally voted in and worked at the Infirmary for 25 years.

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