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Let’s hear it for Isaac Swainson, purveyor of that excellent tincture Velno’s Vegetable Syrup!

One of my all-time favourite Gillray caricatures is the excoriating image of the Prince Regent, bearing the title of ‘A voluptuary under the horrors of Digestion’. It is, in every sense of the word, gross, with its portrayal of the bloated Prince Regent, sitting alongside an overflowing chamber pot, numerous unpaid gambling slips, and a shelf on which are remedies for bad breath – and Velno’s Vegetable Syrup.

So, what of this magic tincture? Velno’s Vegetable Syrup was named after someone  called Vergery de Velnos – probably Jean-Joseph Vergery de Velnos who, in Paris in around 1765, had published a book called “Dissertation sur un nouveau remède anti-vénérien vegetal.” The recipe had been developed  by a Dr Mercier from his premises in Soho’s Frith Street. Dr Mercier had a young assistant by the name of Isaac Swainson and in due course Swainson bought the patent rights for the syrup and promoted it as a cure-all for all the ailments which afflicted mankind – well, and womankind, especially venereal disease. It was to prove to be a marketing sensation, with tens of thousands of bottles being sold. Swainson apparently earned himself £5000 a year from his patent medicine – small wonder when you consider that in addition to curing the French Pox it was also described as eradicating all signs of leprosy, scurvy, tape worms gout, scrofula small pox – and no doubt Housemaids’ Knee. For anyone with ‘scorbutic impurities’ it was an absolute must!

Isaac Swainson in an 1803 portrait by James Raphael Smith

Why was it so popular? Because it was an alternative to the more usual compounds prescribed for the treatment of syphilis, all of which contained mercury. Syphilis (and gonorrhoea) were rampant, especially in cities such as London, and the diseases had horrible symptoms. The cure was however rather worse than the malady, because mercury is not a nice thing to absorb into the human body. Whether popped as pills, drunk as a liquid, or more often as not rubbed into the skin as an ointment, mercury caused devastating changes to the body.

Treatment of syphillis by fumigation, 1776, Lalouette, courtesy of the Wellcome Library

Treatment also included being fumigated – sitting in a hot barrel for hours on end, above a hot iron on which mercury in different forms had been placed, so that the vapours would circulate around the nether regions. This fumigation was spread over four, sometimes six, weeks – hardly an ideal treatment if it meant taking time off work for the entire month or more. For a lady, it carried with it the even more shameful admission that went with venereal disease – that she was in some way to blame, that she was impure. Because, in true chauvinistic style, the eighteenth century males firmly believed that it was the wanton woman, with her uncontrolled carnal desires, which spread the disease. The poor man, on the other hand, was always cast as the innocent victim. And if that sounds a trifle far-fetched, go read the diaries of James Boswell…

Velno’s potion offered the public the chance of a treatment which obviated the shame, the pain and discomfort of visiting the surgery and being given mercury. Not everyone was pleased with the success enjoyed by Swainson – especially the medical profession. Physicians were horrified at the idea that weeks and months of expensive treatment could be avoided by knocking back a few herbs and plant extracts – hence this rather nice caricature by Thomas Rowlandson showing the ‘onslaught against Swainson. It first appeared in 1789 and is shown courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

I like the angry gang of infuriated doctors , one with a giant clyster or syringe, another with a winged statue of the god Mercury, another with a knife and one brandishing a pestle in one hand and a mortar marked ‘Mercury – the only Specifick’ in the other. Behind the rather smug looking Swainson is a list stating “List of Cures – in 1785, 5500; in 1789, 10,000” 

Swainson has been called a  ‘radical quack’ but looking at his career you have to say that whereas the medical profession  dismissed him as a shameless hustler, at least his remedy did not kill the patient, whereas orthodox medicine often did. In 1792 he published a 160-page booklet describing the splendid properties of his vegetable brew. And of course the great thing was that he did not have to name individuals who had been cured (“for reasons easily imagined the cases cannot be publicly stated”).

Swainson had been born in what was then Lancashire, the son of  John Swainson, yeoman, of High House, Hawkshead, by his second wife Lydia Park. He lived between  1746 and 1812 and as a young man he had come to London, studied medicine and got his MD but presumably felt that fame and fortune lay outside the confines of the established medical profession. Certainly there is no record of him ever having been admitted to the Royal Society of Physicians.  It can be assumed that flogging his tinctures at 18 shillings a bottle made him a very wealthy man. He was however dogged by claims and counterclaims by other purveyors of Velno’s Vegetable Syrup – in days when ingredients were not given either on the bottle or on the patent application, it was easy for others to say that theirs was the ‘original’.


An advertisement for Velno’s Vegetable Syrup from La Belle Assemble Magazine of 1808

In 1788 Swainson had taken a lease of land at Twickenham (Heath Lane Lodge) and proceeded to have built a fine dwelling, complete with an impressive botanical garden. The helpful Twickenham Museum site here quotes a  Daniel Lysons who, in 1811, noted that the garden was Scientifically arranged and elegantly laid out, which may be considered as the first private collection of the kind in the kingdom adding that J C Loudon wrote that It contained every tree and shrub that could be procured at the time in British nurseries, and was kept in the first style of order and neatness.

Heath Lane Lodges as rebuilt to the design of Robert           Mitchell, c.1788

Swainsonia formosa

Such was his fame as a botanist and plant collector that Swainson even had a plant named after him – the emblem of South Australia, otherwise known as Swainsonia Formosa – more commonly described as ‘Sturt’s Pea’. All of which is a tad unfair, because the plant’s discovery has nothing whatsoever to do with either Swainson or Dr Sturt, as it had been described and brought to the notice of the British public at least a century earlier, by no less than the great but under-rated explorer William Dampier. Frankly, it should have been Dampieri Formosa, but that’s another story…

Swainson  died on 7 March 1812 at his house in Frith Street, Soho. His body was brought back to Twickenham and was buried in the Holly Road Burial Ground on 14 March, alongside the remains of his wife, Mary, who had died in 1806. They had no children and his estate passed to his niece.

To end with, I came across a remarkable trade token – a copper halfpenny, on Baldwin’s auction site from 2015. It shows a coin in quite superb condition and was perhaps one of only twelve ever minted. It certainly gives some idea of the high regard in which Swainson held himself! He was a fine showman – rather than Hygeia preparing vegetables over a brick oven (as appears from the reverse of the coin) I suspect it was more a case of him chopping up cucumbers, peppers and the odd onion over  a stove in the kitchen at Frith Street. A quack maybe, but a very successful one, and if I ever have the misfortune to suffer from ‘scorbutic impurities’ I will  know what to fetch from the medicine cabinet…besides, it would be an easy way to keep up my five-vegetables-a-day diet!



2 thoughts on “Let’s hear it for Isaac Swainson, purveyor of that excellent tincture Velno’s Vegetable Syrup!”

  1. they would have done better to have eaten mouldy bread for the penicillin … mouldy leather was used by soldiers to treat injuries, but nobody had refined it of course. I’ve seen many ads for this in the newspapers of the time; and less harmful to the community than one of the so-called ‘cures’ which was to have intercourse with an unblemished maid. I’ve seen accounts of little girls as young as 6 being violated just to make sure they were unblemished, an even more wicked thing to do to them even than rape in passing it on. I suspect that many thought they were cured by whatever method when the chancre disappeared, and they carried on passing it on, and probably died of other forms of excess before the brain disintegrated more than usual for a Georgian gentleman in the tertiary stages

    1. Most unhappily, this belief that sex with a ‘pure’ woman will cure all evils continues to this day in parts of Africa. It is seen there as a cure for HIV/AIDS.

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