What is a hospital ship?

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus recently sailed to the west coast of Africa to support Operation Gritrock, part of the UK’s effort to help control the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. She was formerly the container ship MV Contender Bezant before being requisitioned in 1982 for service in the Falklands War. Argus was used as an aviation training ship until 1991 then equipped with extensive hospital facilities for deployment in the Gulf War.

The vessel’s usual role is to serve as a Primary Casualty Receiving Ship for which purpose she has a fully equipped 100-bed medical complex including a state-of-the-art emergency department, resuscitation and surgical facilities, a radiology suite that includes a CT scanner, a critical care unit, a high dependency unit and a 70-bed general ward. However, despite the media’s persistence in describing her as such, she is not classed as a hospital ship because she is armed for self protection .

Hospital ships were covered under the Hague Convention X of 1907 which stated among other things that the ship should be unarmed, clearly marked as a hospital ship and should give medical assistance to wounded personnel of all nationalities. Modern hospital ships display large red crosses or red crescents to signify their protection under the Geneva Convention. Attacking a hospital ship is considered to be a war crime.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans are thought to have used specific vessels to transport wounded personnel but it was during the 17th century that it became customary for hospital ships to accompany naval fleets. The first known was the Royal Navy’s HMS Goodwill commissioned in 1608. Modern hospital ships emerged in the 1850s during the Crimean War and by the 1914-18 war the Royal Navy had 77 such vessels. Some of them were used to evacuate over 100,000 casualties from the Gallipoli Campaign for treatment in Egypt. Two of the largest hospital ships each with 12 fully equipped operating rooms and 1000-bed facilities are currently operated by the US navy. Conversely, the Peruvian Navy has the BAP Puno, a small converted cargo vessel based on Lake Titicaca.

While most hospital ships are operated by and intended for the use of military forces there are a couple of exceptions. The Esperanza del Mar is a purpose-built hospital ship which provides medical support to the Spanish deep water fishing fleet and the MV Africa Mercy, a former ferry converted in 2007 and crewed mainly by volunteers, is run by the charity Mercy Ships.

The RFA Argus may not be classed as a hospital ship but we can still be proud of the important role she is playing in the fight to control Ebola.


Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, What is a hospital ship?;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2014.20067295

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