I had long ago promised Mr. Brent Spiner on Twitter to write a blog explaining the history of Sick Bay. This was, of course, close to two years ago. I have not forgotten and I most heartily apologize for the delay. It has long worried me that fans of Star Trek (Trekkies/Trekkers) feel the need to tell their favourite actor (or actress) that they have lond held desires to whisk them along to Sick Bay. I’m hear to inform them once and for all to please don’t. Sick Bay is not a place for romantic assignations. Sick Bay is a medical area where people are brought to because they are sick, injured, dying, or in some instances, giving birth. Nothing about the term nor the function screams “Romance.” Since this is a history based blog, let’s go on a journey of the history of Sick Bay and it’s usage as a term.
In modern terminology, Sick Bays are the areas on board or ashore Naval and Marine Corps bases (meaning ships or land based facilities) were medical supplies are located. Usually, only the medical oficer and the commanding officer will have access to the locked medical cabinets. On a ship, it’s a specialized compartment or bay. On land, it can be a building or a series of rooms (think medical clinics). Naturally, it’s become popular to use in science fiction due to Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. But I often laugh at people (though also cringing as well), who think it a suitable place to have an assignation in. Granted, it is a sterile environment and I suppose cleanliness would be a positive aspect of selecting such a place. Nonetheless, it is a medical facility first and foremost, which means people have vomited there, gross bodily fluids have spilled there, and people have died there. None of these images conjures up feelings of romance nor of flirtatiousness.
First known use of the word to describe a specific area, according to the Etymology Dictionary, if from the 1580s. They state it can mean the forepart of a ship’s main deck used as a hospital (which sounds like a modern interpretation unless you are made aware that hospital dates from around mid 13th Century France) or an indication of a space between decks, on the forward side, but a recessed space. Hospital meaning “a place for the needy”, “guest lodgings” or “to be hospitable” which doesn’t mean what we now associate with the word. Though one does hope that medical staff in our modern hospitals would treat one hospitably. Even though the word dates from the 1580s doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t in use before that. Some form of the word may have been in use for much longer than we are aware of as sailors rightly deemed it wise to use an area that had no function and turn it into an area for use by those who are injured or sick. One doesn’t want sick men intermingling with healthy men in case it’s an illness that can spread.
USS Brooklyn, circa 1898 “Sick Bay”, Detroit Publishing Company (courtesy of Shorphy.com; image 8863)
Of course, as the decades evolved, so did warfare and a dedicated space was then established for the treatment of injured and ill sailors. Looking at the picture of the U.S.S. Brooklyn (see image above), it’s still clear that the area was still located at the end of the ship. It’s hard to discern whether it’s at the front or the rear. However, this ship was laid out (as in begun) in 1857 and launched (finished) in 1859, so it’s probably located int he front of the ship, like the majority of the Sick Bays were on other man of wars at this time. This ship was decommissioned in 1889 and struck from the Naval lists in 1890; then sold to a private company. This ship is said to be the first official US Naval Ship of this type and one of the best in her day. She was active during the Civil War for the Union and traveled to various interesting places in the world. I do believe there is a much newer ship bearing the same name currently. So, the sailors pictured here are working for a private firm, possibly involved in trade or exploration.
The USS Constitution Museum website has a wonderful entry on their ship
s Sick Bay and how this inspired some writings by Herman Melville (yes, Moby Dick Melville). They also have terrific images of where it is located on the ship itself with period drawings, along with other entries dealing with how they keep the ship in working order (even though it’s permanently docked). They openly discuss the restorations process over the years and the detail they’ve put into it all. Everything about this site has been infinitely informative for me in writing not only this blog post, but for researching and writing my first novel (as I do have Royal Naval Men in it). I cannot state how phenomenal the site it and if you do email them a question, they do try to respond within a few days. They readily provided me with links to other sites of similar ships, which I do not think I would have been able to find on my own without their assistance. https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/2016/05/04/sick-bay-away/
The locked Medicine Cabinet of the HMS Victory’s Sick Bay (courtesy of the HMS Victory)
The above image was emailed to me from the very fine folks restoring the HMS Victory, which is one of the finest examples of Georgian ships to still exist in the world today. When I explained ot them that I wanted to know what the typical medical cabinet aboard a man of war would possibly look like, as they didn’t have an example shown on their site, they very kindly sent me this picture. They are restoring various areas of the ship, so this may be an old picture of what the cabinet looked like before they started to restore the Sick Bay area, as I do believe they are working on it or have been working on it recently. Be that as it may, the important thing to remember is that only the Captain (or the highest ranking Officer on board, say an Admiral) along with the medical Officer, would be the only two to have keys to unlock this cabinet. Any sailor who needed to be treated in Sick Bay also lost their ration of rum that day. So men did not willingly want to be treated for any injury or illness, often preferring to self treat instead. Receiving one’s ration of rum was considered a right and continued in the Royal Navy until Black Tot Day (31 July, 1970). Again, doesn’t sound very sexy, does it? After all, who wants to have their rum ration taken away? The more one finds about Sick Bay, the less appealing it’s sounding.
By the time of WWII, Sick Bay became slightly bigger in size, as they now had to include more modern equipment and the medical officer was now a trained surgeon. The area usually contained a folding operating table, possibly an oxygen tank, maybe an IV stand (though more likely to have hooks in the wall to just hold bags up), fans, perhaps a small fridge to hold vaccines, and a small sink. For now sailors had to be vaccinated and treated for such things as Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Cholera, and STDs like Syphilis. Like their fathers in WWI, STDs were the very Devil; condemns, if you are not aware, have been around since the 1400s. Like always, this was not an area you wanted to be in and one you wanted to avoid at all cost. It was not a sexy place. This was a place of death during the war. Men died on their way there, died from hemorrhaging on the table or died from infection afterwards. In battle, the last thing on the medical offier’s mind would have been sterilization of equipment, unfortunately.
Basically, the point is Sick Bay is not a romantic area at all. I don’t think any proper lady would want to be taken there for an assignation nor should any man deem it an appropriate place to begin with. Places on board a ship which would be much more suitable, and romantic, would naturally be his personal quarters. Considering Data is a Lieutenant, therefore an Officer with Rank, his quarters would be much nicer than the average, basic non-ranking Star Fleet Officer. Personally, the Conference Room (or War Room) would be a nice choice; historically, only Officers of Rank would have access to this room and it does have a lot of windows on one side, meaning there is a nice, pleasant view. On a ship of the 18th & 19th Centuries, this area usually connected to the Captain’s personal quarters and was a bit like his personal sitting area and also his office/conference room. Star Trek wisely has the Captain’s Quarters in a separate Deck, with his office on the opposite side of the conference room, with the main deck in the middle (which I think is a very wise placement decision). Of course, there’s always the Captain’s Office, which may be thrilling and slightly naughty. Empty shuttles, for instance, offer privacy out in the open. There is also the Holodeck, which is engineered for fulfilling fantasies. All I am stating, Star Trek fans, is be less creepy with this fascination for sex in Sick Bay and more realistic.
And while I have given thought as to where one should have an assignation on board a ship, my personal preference is for Captain Wentworth and the Laconia, not Lieutenant Data and the USS Enterprise. I was, after all, seven with TNG came out, so never understood the sexual appeal of Data. Though I did believe Data would be an amazing friend. He would play with Legos with me. We would draw, color and paint together. I’m fairly certain Data would have enjoyed Super Mario Brothers and Tetris. Plus, he was friends with Mr. Reading Rainbow himself, Levar Burton, which made him super cool. And we both liked cats. Watching it again, being older, I still think that way, which isn’t a bad thing. Personally, I ended up crushing on Mr. Nimoy as Spock from the original series. I guess Vulcans are more my thing. Though having meet the man in real life in 2008, Leonard Nimoy was absolutely fantastic. He was warm, kind, and we were able to speak for a little bit. And I always tell people he smelled incredibly good. Which sounds weird, but it’s true. So, I may be unusual, but at least I don’t want to shag someone in Sick Bay.