Joan Druett. Routledge, $27.50 (256p) ISBN 0-415-92451-0

Why would a medical doctor put himself on a whaling vessel in the age of sail? The pay was not tremendous, the company less than stimulating and the danger of disaster significant. Having sketched the origins of doctoring at sea, highlighting John Woodall (1569-1643), "the Father of Sea Surgery," Druett for the most part follows a group of British doctors who shipped out in the 1830s to find adventure and fortune in exotic waters such as the Celebes Sea. Also included is an account of one distinguished New York surgeon, John B. King, who sailed at the same time on a Nantucket whaler. None did amazingly well, nor did any do especially badly, but their collective experience will be of special interest to readers who enjoy the literature of sailing ships. Druett showcases excellent research with generous quotations of primary documents-some of which are reproduced along with paintings, etchings, photographs and drawings. One of the three appendices compares what Dr. Woodall's and Dr. King's medical chests contained, demonstrating that the herbal treatments used during the 17th century had been replaced by more purely chemical remedies in the 19th. The pursuit of adventure seems to have been these generally well-educated gentlemen's motivation, but Druett's writing does not conform to the fast-paced style of adventure narrative. Those who enjoyed Patrick O'Brian's eye for historical detail will delight in Druett, a dedicated historian, but they will not find the same talent for drama. (Dec.)