ON THIS DATE IN 1916: BLACKBOROW’S TOES WERE CUT OFF

June 15, 2018

By early June 1916, six weeks after the Caird’s departure, Perce’s right foot was healing well but his left foot was gangrenous—a condition where the death of body tissue is caused by reduced, or lack of, blood supply to the affected area. The doctors, Macklin and McIlroy, had monitored the circumstances and, with dismay, decided that, on the morning of 15 June, it required action. The hut was converted into an operating theatre with a platform of food boxes covered with blankets serving as the operating table. Wild and Hurley volunteered to assist in the procedure as everyone else able-bodied enough to evacuate the hut did so promptly. Blackborow was well-liked among all hands and his health and survival was of prime concern for the Elephant Island party and, of course, for their morale.

Perce Blackborow with Mrs. Chippy

The thought of amputating Perce’s toes had been on the doctors’ minds since reaching the island. As Shackleton recalled:

Blackborow’s feet were giving him much pain, and McIlroy and Macklin thought that an operation would soon be necessary. At that time [22 April] they thought they had no chloroform, but they found some in the medicine chest after we left [in the Caird].

Though there was no local anaesthetic available, enough chloroform was found to knock Perce out for the duration of the operation, a tense fifty-five minutes which displayed the resolution and skills of the doctors.

Dr Alexander Macklin was reliable and loyal. He was the ship’s only Antarctic novice selected by Shackleton for the planned cross-continental team, showing either the trust that the Boss had for Macklin, or perhaps his foresight that he would need him and his skills. Macklin was Scottish and though born in India came from a physician’s family practising on the Scilly Islands. He could, at times, be quick-tempered but was mostly soft-spoken and hard-working.

Macklin

McIlroy was about thirty-five years old, rather handsome and sardonic. Following his education in Birmingham he practised medicine in far-flung places such as Egypt, Malaya and Japan as well as serving as ship’s doctor on East Indian passenger steamers. Born in Ulster, to a father from Ballyclare, Co. Antrim, perhaps it was his Irish roots or his wicked sense of humour that attracted Shackleton. On his character, Greenstreet was blunt, saying that he was a ‘sardonic, sarcastic blighter’.

McIlroy

As Hurley stoked the stove until the hut was warm enough at 79 degrees Fahrenheit and Wild gave Perce the comfort of jumper as a pillow, the doctors stripped to their undershirts as they were the cleanest clothes they had. Lees was impressed by Hurley’s ability to keep the temperature so high for about an hour—’not so bad for the Antarctic’ he noted, ‘nothing but blubber and penguin skins for fuel.’ Macklin carefully administered the chloroform and McIlroy performed the surgery. He operated with just the blubber stove for heat and an insufficient selection of instruments which were sterilised in boiling water. Of the operation, Greenstreet wrote:

[Blackborow had] all the toes of his left foot taken off ¼ inch stumps being left… the poor beggar behaved splendidly and it went without a hitch.

As the other men had been kicked out of the hut for the duration of the operation, they had to amuse themselves outside. They cut each other’s hair to pass the time and had to use ice blocks as seat for lack of anything better. They were allowed back into the hut after about three hours, by which time, as Lees wrote, they were ‘bored, cold and hungry.’ As the others climbed into the relative heat of their sleeping bags, Perce was sleeping off the effects of the chloroform.

Elephant Island hut

Shackleton had briefly considered taking Perce on the James Caird as it was thought that the need for surgery would come sooner than later. Although he did worry about the Welshman’s life, Shackleton knew that there was no room for a passenger in the lifeboat:

It would be hard enough for a fit man to live in the boat. Indeed, I did not see how a sick man, lying helpless in the bottom of the boat, could possibly survive in the heavy weather we were sure to encounter.

Shackleton praised the doctors’ work on Blackborow’s toes:

That this operation, under the most difficult circumstances, was very successful speaks volumes for the skill and initiative of the surgeons.

Worsley too was rightly impressed and commended the men on their care of Blackborow. He later wrote that the operation not only saved Perce’s foot, but probably also his life.

As heard in Greenstreet’s accreditation quoted above, Blackborow was much admired for his cheerfulness before and after the operation. He was not, however, in the clear. In August, the swelling and inflammation of his foot indicated osteomyelitis, the infection of the bone.

To read more of Perce’s story, see my bookley turned into a blog:

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