(Friday Night History) The Doctor and the Daimyo

(pictured: Nabeshima Naomasa in formal garb)

This episode of Friday Night History first ran on 9 December 2020. This and more is made possible by readers like you. Support my work via Patreon at bit.ly/2lVqvv2, send a 1-time donation here: bit.ly/2lQfdZ8 , or buy my new novel #GreyDawn via bit.ly/greydawnebook! Thank you!

First things first this week, kids: don’t mess with mercury, regardless of what a Civil War doctor or Daoist sage tells you. Just don’t. It’ll be a bad time.

We cool? Cool.

Alright, so. Dr. Samuel Pellman Boyer (1839-1875) was a physician in US Navy service in the 1860s. After a tour in the blockade of southern ports during the American Civil War, he aws assigned to the USS Iroquois, part of the navy’s Asiatic Squadron, based in and around East Asian waters. The timing of his appointment would bring him from the aftermath of one civil war and into the throes of another. His diary, “Diary of a Naval Surgeon: Revolt in Japan,” is one of the primary American first-person accounts of the Boshin War of 1868-1869.

Pictured: USS Iroquois at anchor.

Nabeshima Naomasa (1815-1871) was daimyo of Saga domain from 1830 to 1861. By 1868 he was in retirement but continued to exert a major influence on his domain’s affairs. Saga under his leadership had made huge strides in technological development as well as military reform. As I’ve often said here and elsewhere, you can’t fight a 19th century war with 16th century technology and command structure and expect to win. Interest in technological and military reforms was not unique in this period in the Shogunate or in any of the domains, but Saga benefited from a geographic placement no other major domain enjoyed: its territory was immediately next to Nagasaki, the one port through which legal foreign trade and interaction took place in the Edo period. Officially this was under the watchful eye of the Tokugawa Shogunate, but unofficially, the Shogunate was unable to exert much meaningful direct control– if the clans around Nagasaki adhered to Shogunate policy, it was more under the theoretical force of potential Shogunate reprisal (as in the case of the Shimabara Uprising of 1638) rather than actual overwhelming Shogunate force in the area. This left the clans of western Japan in general, and Saga in particular, in a position where they had easier acess to foreign technology and foreign experts than others in Japan who had similar aims, like the house of Date, which ruled Sendai domain in northern Honshu.

Despite Nabeshima Naomasa’s insistence on technological advances and broad reforms and modernization, he kept the domain out of entanglement in any of the political factions that dominated Japanese politics in the 1860s. This continued into the start of the Boshin War, and threatened Saga’s security– indeed, there were some in nearby Satsuma domain, one of the leaders of the new imperial army, who called for attacking Saga due to its apparent fence-sitting. Western observers referred to Naomasa himself as “Mister Facing-Both-Ways.” But the clan leadership, including the retired Naomasa and his son Naohiro, soon threw in with the new imperial faction and put its advanced military technology to work in the service of that army. By the time Dr. Boyer entered the picture, Saga– also known by the name of the old province in which it sat, Hizen– had made itself one of the central pillars of the new imperial forces. And while many other daimyo had abandoned their estates in Kyoto or had them confiscated for supposed disloyalty, the Saga estate was a focal point of lively activity for Saga men and others. And this was where Nabeshima Naomasa was, on 29 July 1868, when Samuel Pellman Boyer met him. As was customary among Americans referring to daimyo at the time, he calls Naomasa “the Prince.” 

Naomasa was no stranger to western medicine. Earlier in life, he had a role in the popularization and implementation of smallpox vaccination in late Edo Japan. Western medicine was, for a time in the 1840s, declared illegal in Shogunate territories. However, after vaccinating himself and his son at home in Saga, Naomasa took the vaccine with him on his journey to the shogun’s capital of Edo, where he had his daughter vaccinated as well, and through contacts with other domains, spread the word and helped other people from other domains get vaccinated– Sendai domain being one of the first to follow Saga’s lead. As a result, Naomasa ensured his domain was a leader in medical advances, so by 1868, he would certainly have been no stranger to western doctors and medical technology.

Joseph Heco, a Japanese interpreter and noted former castaway, brought a Saga domain official nnamed Motoyama to the US consulate at Osaka on 26 July, where Motoyama requested the aid of an American doctor in treating Naomasa. “General debility” is what Boyer’s diary records as the symptoms this official relayed. Once Boyer rounded up medical supplies, he, Heco, Motoyama, the American consul T. Scott Stewart, and a few Japanese officers, took a boat up to Kyoto, where they arrived at the Saga estate at Kyoto’s Fushimi district on the 29th at 11 AM, having passed the ruins of the Battle of Toba-Fushimi that had yet to be cleared. Upon arrival in Fushimi, Boyer and Stewart were the first Americans to enter Kyoto. They were at last summoned to Naomasa’s bedchamber at 5 PM that day and found him in bed, with a very low pulse, as well as fatigued and complaining of pains throughout his body. To quote Boyer:

“Upon examination, I found that the Prince had been maltreated. It appears that six weeks ago he was attacked with an attack of dysenteria accuta acompanied with typhoid symptoms, for which his doctor had given him large doses of mercury to such an extent as to salivate him almost to death…”

So here’s where we have to talk about mercury.

Mercury is a substance that has a long history in traditional East Asian medicine, but was also quite common in western medicine of the time as well. Calomel in particular, a mercury chloride mineral, was used medicinally in the American Civil War, though because of its negative side-effects its military use was soon restricted. So we can assume Boyer would’ve been familiar with mercury-based medication and its effects, even before he came to East Asian waters. Ironically, the medical supplies Boyer took with him to Kyoto included “blue pills,” which was one common form of calomel, the common name of mercury chloride.

Boyer diagnosed Naomasa with adynamia, or general debility, and perscribed as initial treatment “ipecacuanhae pulv comp grs iii”– three powdered grams of ipecac, a pretty powerful emetic.

The next day, some Saga officials called on Boyer in the latter’s quarters in the Saga estate and reported that Naomasa had slept well all night after his treatment. In his diary entry for the day, Boyer said

“I felt better, for to confess the truth I thought last night that he might peg out during the night, for a man with a pulse of 38 is not a very strong one.”

There were a range of medications that Boyer administered to Naomasa, but the result was that by the last time Boyer saw him on 31 July, Naomasa was markedly improved.

“Called upon him at 1 P.M. and gave his doctor final directions and then bade the Prince adieu and told him to come to Osaka as soon as his health would permit him to travel. 4 P.M. our party left homeward bound.”

In his own account of the visit, Heco notes “After breakfast we visited the Prince again and found that the medicine had had powerful effect upon him. As he felt much better, we stayed with him much longer than on the two previous occasions. He asked me many questions about foreign matters, and requested me to inform Mr. Katayama, his confidential attendant, of anything that might suggest itself to my mind as beneficial to his country.”

Nabeshima Naomasa went on to occupy several important posts in the early Meiji government, including as director of colonization for the newly annexed Hokkaido. He died in 1871 at the age of 56, and since 1933 is enshrined as a kami at Saga Shrine, in his old castle town. Samuel Pellman Boyer finished his tour of duty, went home, and died in 1875 at 36, relatively young even for the time.

But there’s an interesting postscript to this story.

In his account of the visit to treat Nabeshima Naomasa, Joseph Heco noted that on the last day in Fushimi, Boyer and the others were visited by 

“Mr. Yokoi Heshiro (afterwards Minister of State and assassinated by a band of Ronin in 1868), who came to consult the doctor and get medicine.”

Yokoi Heishirō, better known as Yokoi Shōnan, was a vassal of Kumamoto domain, one of Saga’s powerful neighbors in Kyushu. A year later, his nephew, Yokoi Daihei, became one of the first two Japanese students at the United States Naval Academy, at Annapolis, Maryland.

All of this just goes to show: history is more interconnected than we might assume. And it sometimes moves faster than we realize.

But seriously kids: don’t ingest mercury.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory

Now, questions?


  • Boyer, Samuel Pellman. Naval Surgeon: Revolt in Japan, 1868-1869. James A. Barnes and Elinor Barnes, eds. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), pp. 78-88.
  • “Col. Thomas Scott Stewart.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/136388705/thomas-scott-stewart Accessed 9 December 2020.
  • Heco, Joseph. The narrative of a Japanese: what he has seen and the people he has met in the course of the last forty years, Vol. 2. James Murdoch, ed. (Tokyo: Maruzen, 1895), pp. 118-129. https://www.loc.gov/item/52053301/ Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • Jannetta, Ann Bowman. The Vaccinators: Smallpox, Medical Knowledge, and the ‘Opening’ of Japan. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).
  • “Katsuyaku shita Hitobito.” https://www.city.saga.lg.jp/main/3857.html Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Register of the commandery of the state of Pennsylvania, April 15, 1865-September 1, 1902 Brevet Lieut.-Colonel John P. Nicholson, Recorder-Compiler. (Philadelphia: Press of J.T. Palmer, 1902), p. 59. https://archive.org/details/registerofcomman18mili Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • Nabeshima, Naomasa. https://www.ndl.go.jp/portrait/e/datas/154.html Accessed 7 December 2020.
  • Onodera Eikō, “Boshin Nanboku Senso to Tohoku Seiken.” (Sendai: Kita no Mori, 2005).
  • “Saga-han no Torikumi.” https://www.city.saga.lg.jp/main/3856.html Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • “Sagara Chian.” http://www.sagarachian.jp/main/74.html Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • Swiderski, Richard M. Calomel in America: Mercurial Panacea, War, Song and Ghosts. (Boca Raton: BrownWalker Press, 2008), pp. 19-20, 186.

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