With Tegetthoff at Lissa

Tegetthoff, the great admiral of the Austrian fleet. Ship’s Surgeon Ephraim Epstein was there for the famous Battle of Lissa, 20 July 1866. He wrote an account and an epic poem for which he was personally thanked by Tegetthoff, and rewarded by Emperor Franz Josef. Interested in the book With Tegettoff at Lissa: Memoirs of an Officer in the Austrian Naval Officer 1861-1866 https://amzn.to/2Oin0d6 ? You may also be interested in Dr Epstein’s account of Tegetthoff and the battle in the biographical novel, The Extraordinary Dr Epstein https://amzn.to/2OeTYeB

Both books available on Amazon in print and digital. Also click to see this page for my non-fic account of the battle of Lissa written for the newsletter of the Society for Nautical Research.

Ram everything grey!

‘Close with the enemy and ram everything grey!’ So the Austrian Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff rallied his men 153 years ago on 20th July in one of naval history’s outstanding battles, the Battle of Lissa. Ship’s Surgeon Ephraim M Epstein was there. Researching his life set me on a quest to discover just what made the battle so famous. And to find his descriptive poem on it which gained him a reward from the Emperor Franz Joseph. Result: a new view and a mystery. Click here for the dramatic true story.


A few years later Dr Epstein returned to the USA to live in the wild West… but not for long. He was destined for a new wife, nine children and three more careers across America…


Looking up to the broad, taut sails…

… awe filled Ephraim at the power of wind, the power of the Lord. The heaviest storm season in these northern waters had begun, and the swells and heaving of their ship on the vastness of the ocean increased. When the gusts hit, down they went to their hell hole still reeking of urine, feces, vomit, rot. Ephraim focused on hope: how long, how long to America, the promised land of opportunity?sails

The worst of all storms follows in The Perilous Journey by Sea (Chapter 4) in the leaky ship Howard on a voyage of nine weeks that should have taken three. ‘Repent your sins and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ!’ threatens a shipboard pastor…



Enough of adventure, fleapits and anxiety,

P1040609… rough roads, railway cinders, bad food, suspicious soldiers, passports, bribes on demand. The word emigrating had become not full of excitement and promise but empty and lonely. Ephraim yearned for a hot bath, clean white sheets, down-filled coverlets and family love. Jacob knocked again. Yes, a fine dinner of china with thin glassware and silver cutlery and candlelight would be paradise. The door opened. A tall, red-faced man in waistcoat and dark fitted jacket said, ‘Tradesmen to the lower entrance,’ and made to shut the door.

‘Who are you?’ exclaimed Uncle Jacob. ‘It is I, Jacob Finkelstein, and Ephraim, your mistress’s brother.’

In Chapter 3, The Perilous Journey by Land, Ephraim and funny, wise old Uncle Jacob have a brief respite, but a far more perilous journey is suddenly to begin…

Ship’s surgeon, Battle of Lissa

20 July 1866 – It was a magnificent battle, valiantly fought and won in two hours. This was naval history – the under-armed Austrian Imperial Navy fleet trouncing double its size, using classic ramming tactics against the newest designs in naval strength. The daring and courage, the leadership – Ship’s Surgeon Ephraim Epstein was moved and thrilled, full of pride and admiration. He was sobered, too. Even from outside the fray he’d seen and heard the injured, dying and drowning men, the scrambles for rescue. The Seehund took on some of the wounded, including many from the Italian fleet, for their casualties ran to hundreds. Austria had only thirty-eight lost, 138 hurt. It was time to work. Like other naval Surgeons, Ephraim combined all three branches of medicine. He was physician, diagnosing and prescribing; he was apothecary, preparing and dispensing medicine; and he was surgeon, performing operations. He completed two amputations, six extractions of bullets and set two broken limbs. Burns and gashes needed treating too. From his Austrian patients, as he worked, Ephraim learned more about the triumph: how proud the men were of Admiral Tegetthoff, how he had drilled them, in maneuvers, in gunnery, how he planned the ramming even though the ship armoring was incomplete. Most of all, he showed he loved his men, he believed in them and their morale.

Late at night, exhausted and exhilarated by all he had witnessed, Ephraim began to compose a description of the extraordinary day.

Here, above, is a newly discovered photograph of Ephraim Epstein in uniform to mark the anniversary of the astonishing Battle of Lissa 152 years ago, 20 July 1866. Restless Dr Epstein, 37, left his post at the great Vienna General Hospital for a commission in the Austrian Imperial Navy.  See here for an illustrated historical description

In The Extraordinary Dr EpsteinChapters 19, Fierce as a Leopard, Light as an Eagle, and 20, Battle, set out the lead-up and Ephraim’s role. Many thanks to Professor Consultant Barry Kay for finding this photo in The American Journal of Clinical Medicine, Abbott Clinical Publishing Company 1910. See my earlier postings for a quick insight: As rumors built and First clash of ironclad fleets



At the start she was a docile wife,

… but Rachel’s demeanor continued as a kind of obedience that came to offend Ephraim. beautiful wedding cake
The first skirmish was on their wedding night in August 1846. After the dancing and singing, drinking and eating, teasing and laughter, when at last they were shut in their bedroom alone, she was miserable.

‘Don’t look at me! Don’t look!’ she cried out. Ephraim, startled, turned from the door. She buried her face in her hands. ‘I said don’t look!’

So begins Chapter 2, The Cousin-Bride. Do have a read of Chapter 1 here on Amazon Look-Inside… and do join the fun of a whole gallery of photos of The Extraordinary Dr Epstein launch party under the Author page.


The oldest, handsomest and best-loved

In his country practice, traveling miles by horse and carriage in all weathers, Ephraim began to feel the toll of West Virginia’s misty autumns, snowy winters, cloudy springs and humid summers. He would come home dog tired. He could not avoid the reality of approaching seventy and the equal reality of the need for income. His eldest two children were working but there were five more, the youngest only eight. He began to brood. He hated being an old man.

He opened the envelope, grunting in satisfaction at finding the banker’s draft — Helena had said the coal bill was due. And then as he read the letter his hands began to tremble. Looking at it again he went to the door and called Helena.

‘Is something wrong?’ she hurried from the back parlor.

‘I wondered if you would come out for a walk with me later.’ He would tell her the news gently, in a pleasant setting.

She hugged herself to his arm as they walked past an empty pasture. Where the woods began Ephraim stopped, took both her hands in his and chafed them, bent to warm them with his breath. ‘How would you feel about moving away from here?’ She pulled her hands away, startled. ‘I have had the most generous, wonderful, timely offer from Dr Abbott. It would mean living in the city — Chicago.’

Ephraim makes one last move — both in career and location. In Chapter 38, The Gleaner, after recuperating from a serious illness he accepts the offer of an editorial post with the journal of the Abbott Alkaloidal company. He and the family moved to Ravenswood, Chicago in 1899 where he lived and worked successfully until his death in January 1913, in his 85th year. The byline in his article above: The story of ‘The Gleaner,’ the oldest, handsomest and best-loved of the entire editorial staff of Clinical Medicine (Date ca 1906). Gleanings from Foreign Fields was Ephraim M Epstein’s regular column of translations from European medical journals. He also ran the Abbott medical library, fostering research.

It is new, it is progress!

‘If the patient survives the treatment, he’ll survive the illness,’ Ephraim said. ‘But this new dosing method sounds much more efficient — and safe!’

‘Convenient, too. Regrettably some physicians condemn it as quackery,’ his young colleague replied.

‘Why? Clearly this is not watered-down plants in sugar-pills, it’s alkaloids: measured, isolated, active principles. It is new, it is progress, a God-send!

Before the month was out Ephraim wrote to the Abbott Alkaloidal Company for a subscription to their journal and got with it, free, a leather-bound pocket case containing nine vials, each filled with one hundred alkaloidal granules. Among his choices: aconitine for fever, digitalin for heart and circulation, codeine for pain, coughs and colics, morphine sulphate for pain. A month of using the method — easy to handle, pleasant, efficient, effective — and he knew this was a cause he must champion. His passion drove him to action.

When Ephraim’s medical career began in 1859, bleeding, purging and herbal medicine guess-work were the modes of healing; click here  and here for a quick time-travel back to his life as a med student. In The Last Cause (Chapter 37) Dr Epstein happens upon a new form of medication and decides this is the future of medicine. He writes letters, then articles for the company’s journal. Finally in 1895 he travels to Chicago to meet Dr Wallace C Abbott, company founder. Ephraim was right, this era saw the vanguard of today’s scientific medicine. Abbott Pharmaceuticals now is a huge international corporation. Only a couple of years earlier the Chicago World’s Fair (lit up at night in the photo) displayed the latest in electricity, machinery, transport, industry, agriculture. Medicine, too, is part of the glittering future ahead.

Tumors and gunshot wounds…

The ill health of human kind continued as ever: tumors and gunshot wounds, epilepsy and syphilis, pneumonia and cirrhosis, scarlet fever and ulcers, tuberculosis… for many conditions treatment was much the same as Dr Epstein had used nine years ago, before he gave up practice out of grief and guilt.

However, he had to learn about the medical advances. His old enemy from Monastir and Pola remained a scourge, but at least smallpox vaccination was becoming more accepted by the public. Yellow fever still broke out in port cities, but the search for its microbes was narrowing. Childbirth, as always, presented risks, but puerperal fever was less common, theories of cleanliness taking hold. Lister’s carbolic acid solution now swabbed most surgical procedures, and a recent medical journal said a solution of iodine had proved a good antiseptic. Ephraim’s faith in himself as a physician began to return.

In his mountainous West Virginia backwater Ephraim is in full time country medical practice. He travels the rough roads far in his horse and buggy, often taking one of the children — now there are seven — for company and to talk with them to improve their minds. In Chapter 36, Whither Thou Goest, Ephraim and Helena also get descriptions from his daughter Sister Sadie of the Czar’s new repressive May Laws of 1891 which suddenly forced more than ten thousand Jews to leave Moscow. But she, like he, is now Christian.  Doctor’s buggy photograph from http://www.countrydoctormuseum.org ; the museum is located in North Carolina.

Yet he was terrified,

He was terrified, how could he dare to practice again? The dream made Ephraim understand his God-given duty to return to medicine. He saw that he had let his own doubts stand in the way. But he did not know if he was capable; so much had happened in medicine since 1878. He was a fool, a coward, he’d run away from doctoring and forced these wandering years on his loyal loving wife. After all her sacrifice, could she forgive a turn-around?


‘Still bearing fruit when I am old, still green and full of sap,’ Ephraim quotes Psalm 92 in Chapter 35, Still Full of Sap. He is awed by becoming a father again at age 58. The birth of a boy, Leo, can never make up for the death of William, but at last Ephraim feels the call to his former profession. After nine years he ends his self-banishment and in 1887 applies to the state of West Virginia for his medical license.