Jun 142022

Edward Jenner. Image courtesy of Wellcome Institute





It is a staple of many a quiz competition: who was the first person to carry out a vaccination? Answer, of course, Edward Jenner – the country doctor from Berkeley in Gloucestershire. The story of Blossom the cow, Sarah Nelmes the milkmaid and James Phipps – the young boy given a dose of cowpox and subsequently exhibiting an immunity against small pox – is well known. But like so many stories it hides the truth, and the truth is that Jenner was not the first, by some twenty-odd years. That isn’t to lessen his contribution to immunology – and after all, he gave us the word “vaccine”, and is the man who ultimately enabled the World Health Organization to announce, in 1980, that “Smallpox is dead”. But he wasn’t the first – and he certainly wasn’t the first to come up with the idea that cowpox provided immunity against smallpox.

Enter a man who lived just round the corner from my home in Sherborne: Benjamin Jesty. He had been born in the small village of  Yetminster in around 1736 and was one of at least four children born to the local butcher, a man called Robert Jesty.

Upbury Farm, Yetminster. (Image in the public domain).

Son Benjamin grew up and became a farmer, and in March 1770 married a local girl called Elizabeth Notley and settled at Upbury Farm, next to Yetminster church.The couple went on to have four sons and three daughters, but  for the purposes of this blog, we are only interested in the two eldest children.

Country folk had long known that milkmaids made good nurses for patients suffering from small pox – simply because they never caught small pox themselves. The reason, which was not fully understood, was that the milkmaids generally came into contact with cow pox – where lesions and pustules develop on the udders of cows. The infected udders were handled by the milkmaids – they caught the cow pox and perhaps suffered a few days with a minor rash and the odd blister appearing on their hands. But they never got small pox.

In 1774 there was an outbreak of small pox in the area south of Yeovil, affecting various villages including Yetminster. Jesty was understandably worried about his family contracting the disease which was often described as The Angel of Death. It killed  a large percentage of its victims – and those that weren’t killed were often left blind and with facial disfigurations.  Jesty would not have been too worried about himself – he had had cowpox and although he had been in contact with people suffering from small-pox he had never caught the disease and felt immune. But his wife had not helped with milking the cows and had never  had the cowpox. Nor had his two eldest boys.

At that time, Jesty’s cows were all in good health – no cow pox anywhere to be seen. So Jesty marched his wife and young family over to a friend’s farm in nearby Chetnole, where the farmer had several cattle exhibiting sores and blisters on the udder.

Armed with a long needle, Jesty lanced one of the blisters and then pricked the arm of each of his two boys – thereby smearing them with the infectious material. No problem there – and both children went on to develop cow pox. In turn, they gained immunity from small pox, a fact established beyond doubt over subsequent years when they were deliberately infected with small pox – but never caught the disease. Not so lucky was Mrs Jesty. Let’s face it, mucking around with a needle around a cow’s undercarriage is likely to pick up all sorts of bacteria and gubbins. Injected with this cocktail of germs, poor Mrs Jesty not only caught cow pox but also suffered a high temperature, considerable pain, and her arm swelled up so badly that it was feared that she would lose it. For some days she was at death’s door, but gradually recovered.

When news leaked out that Jesty had deliberately introduced material from a lowly animal – the cow – into the body of his wife the local population were horrified. They hurled abuse at Jesty whenever they saw him, spat at him, and apparently even threw stones at him, such was their disgust at his behaviour. It wasn’t natural. It smacked of witch-craft. It flew against the Scriptures. It was treading into the Lord’s territory. Mrs Jesty might develop bovine tendencies – grow horns – or have uncontrollable urges if she saw a bull….

The public outrage meant that Jesty kept pretty quiet about his experiment. He was after all, a country farmer, not a man with any medical training, and had no understanding about disseminating knowledge by delivering papers to learned societies. He just kept shtumm, although it is likely that he occasionally carried out the procedure on other people in the locality. When he moved to Downshay Manor Farm at Worth Matravers near Swanage on the Dorset coast in about 1797 he met Dr.  Andrew Bell, a Scottish educationalist-come-preacher who went on to vaccinate over 200 of his parishioners in 1806.

The original vaccination took place two decades before Edward Jenner carried out his own experiments. Did he hear of Jesty and his darning needle? There is no way of knowing. Similar experiments had been taking place in Germany and elsewhere, and in many ways Jenner was simply following up on ideas contained in a paper delivered to the Medical Society London in 1765  by someone he knew well – a doctor from nearby Thornbury called Dr Fewster. No record of the paper remains but its title “Cow pox and its ability to prevent smallpox”  gives a strong hint  as to its message. Why didn’t Dr Fewster  carry out the experiment which Jenner later implemented? Probably because as a country doctor he made a very good living practising what was called the Suttonian Method of Variolation – basically giving a person small pox by infecting him or her with  material taken from a smallpox victim who was known to have had only a mild attack. Pioneered by three members of the Sutton family, this method made many doctors rich – and they weren’t about to embrace a totally new idea if it meant doing them out of their job.

Jenner made his experiment on eight-year-old James Phipps, proving the idea that immunity could be gained from vaccination. He repeated the experiment on numerous occasions – he delivered papers showing the results, he attended meetings and in his own words became the ‘clerk of vaccination’ – sending details and samples of cowpox matter to numerous countries. To Jenner, quite rightly, goes the fame – he was indeed the ‘father of immunology’. But he also made a lot of enemies – especially in the medical profession –  and many were outraged when the government voted to pay Jenner £10,000 as compensation for his loss of revenue as a country G.P. One of the opponents was so outraged that he arranged for his private Institute, known as  the Original Vaccine Pock Institute, to interview Jesty in 1805. They cross-examined him as to exactly what procedure he had carried out, how it had been done, the date, and so on. They interviewed his son and indeed infected the son with smallpox material to show that his immunity still existed despite a thirty-year interval. The Institute commissioned an artist, Mr M W Price, to paint Jesty’s portrait and issued a statement, printed in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal  setting out Jesty’s claim to be the first vaccinator in history.

Benjamin Jesty: Oil painting by M.W. Sharp, 1805. Picture shown courtesy of  Wellcome Images

Jesty died at Worth Matravers on 16 April 1816 and was buried in the local churchyard. His widow, Elizabeth, died eight years later and was buried alongside him. Jesty’s headstone reads:

(Sacred) To the Memory OF Benj.in. Jesty (of Downshay) who departed this Life, April 16th 1816 aged 79 Years. He was born at Yetminster in this County, and was an upright honest Man: particularly noted for having been the first Person (known) that Introduced the Cow Pox by Inoculation, and who from his great strength of mind made the Experiment from the (Cow) on his Wife and two Sons in the Year 1774.


Mar 082021

I have always been a sucker for boxes – especially apothecary boxes – so I was intrigued to see this little number featured on the excellent Mark Goodger site. O.K. you need to have a shade short of £3000 spare but it really is exquisite! It stands just  under fourteen inches tall, is made of mahogany with brass fittings, and comes with  plethora of original glass bottles and implements.

Mark’s site describes it as  being: “Antique mahogany apothecary cabinet with a brass carry handle on the top and two brass escutcheons on the doors. The one on the left side door is false. Once unlocked the right-hand door can be opened revealing half of the boxes contents. This allows access to a small brass tab on the top of the left-hand door which is what keeps it closed and secure.With both doors open all 23 glass jars can now be accessed.”

The glass bottles are all labelled and range from  Boracic Powder, Syrup of Senna, Pure Glycerine, Peroxide of Hydrogen, Senna Pods, Boric Acid, Oil of Eucalyptus, Liquid extract of Cascara Sagrada, Acetic Acid, Finest Castor Oil, Tartaric Acid, Purified Epsom Salts, Turpentine, Magnesia, Distilled Water, Saltpetre, Linseed Oil, Borax, Gee’s Linctus, Best Arrowroot, Tincture of Quinine, Finest Olive Oil, and ending up with Sweet Spirit of Nitre.

The bottles are divided up, with nine inside each door and  five of the larger jars held in the main body of the cabinet. Beneath those jars are five drawers,each with turned bone handles.
The middle drawer contains various medical supplies including a funnel, glass plate, tongue depressor, glass pestle, measuring cylinder, glass beaker and a set of weighing scales.
The large drawer at the bottom of the box contains four silver topped jars in fitted compartments, four small jars with stoppers, and a large glass mortar.

This apothecary cabinet also features a false back that can be slid open – if you know how!  In this secret compartment there is space for  glass jars  labelled: “Carbonate Soda, Paregoric Elixir, Laudanum, Essence Peppermint” – presumably the more expensive and dangerous items.

I appreciate that the date makes this little treasure Victorian rather than Georgian, but I am inclined to overlook this small aberration – it looks fascinating. Do have a look at the Mark Goodger site – his stock is constantly changing and whether you are into tea caddies, sewing boxes, writing cases or jewellery boxes there is always something to catch your fancy!

Jun 252020

My ancestor Richard Hall loved collecting what might be called ‘factoids’ – snippets of information presented as scientific facts, but often rather lacking in accuracy. One of his factoids, stored in his little notebook, reads: ‘Onions afford little or no nourishment; when eaten liberally, produce flatulencies, occasion thirst, headachs and turbulent dreams.’

I must have too much time on my hands, but during lock-down I thought I would do a google search to see where this gem of knowledge came from.

There it is, sure enough, word for word, in a book entitled The New Dispensatory.

It came out in 1753 and although it was not among Richard’s library of books when he died, he may well have acquired a copy, or he may have borrowed it. He was certainly a raging hypochondriac, fascinated by all-things-medical, and his notebooks contain a number of other  entries about drugs, apothecaries and so on. He also loved jotting down remedies and cures. As for the references to ‘flatulencies’ I know that Richard suffered from acute wind and stomach discomfort, as borne out by his numerous diary entries.

Detail from The Apothecary by Pietro Longhi, c. 1752

I see that there is a copy of the first edition of  the New Dispensatory available from Abe Books – for a mere $958, but you’ll need to add shipping! The Abe Books site tells me that William Lewis was a chemist and physician, born in 1708 and living until 1781. Apparently ‘the English dispensatories of the seventeenth and following century were mainly commentaries based on the London and other pharmacopeias, which began to be expanded, more or less comprehensively, in order to work as reference books.’ As  for the  title page stating that it was intended as ‘a correction and improvement on Quincy’, Quincy was apprenticed as an apothecary and published his own ‘English Dispensatory’ in 1721. By 1749 it had already run to twelve editions and many of the prescriptions contained in it were popular throughout the eighteenth century. Quincy had studied mathematics and the philosophy of Sir Isaac Newton, and received the degree of M.D. from the University of Edinburgh.

The book starts with the words:’PHARMACY is the art of preparing and compounding natural substances for medicinal purposes; in a manner suitable to their respective properties and the intentions of cure.’ It goes on to include a long section on all sorts of vegetables, and I can well imagine Richard Hall wading through lists of edibles, finding out what  the side effects were.

Death and the Apothecary, or, The Quack Doctor, by Thomas Rowlandson

Nowadays, he would no doubt have added that onions are about 89% water,  9% carbohydrates (to include 4% sugar, and  2% dietary fibre) 1% protein – and negligible fat. With hardly any calories, who cares if they give you wind, to say nothing of a somewhat powerful breath…

I have never understood why it was usual for pharmacists to hang a stuffed crocodile outside their shop but I was delighted to see that a Nile croc is on display  in the Royal Pharmaceutical Society museum. I don’t think even they know where it came from – or whether it was just a rag week stunt.

O.K. One final Rowlandson to end with – entitled the Apothecaries Prayer. What did apothecaries pray for? A cure to all ailments, an end to Covid 19? No,  quite the opposite! It actually reads:

“Oh mighty Esculapius! Hear a poor little man overwhelm’d with misfortunes, grant I beseech thee to send a few smart Fevers and some obstinate Catarrhs amongst us or thy humble supplicant must shut up shop…”

“and if it would please thee to throw in a few Cramps and Agues, it would greatly help thy miserable servant, for on the word of an apothecary, I have scarcely heard the music of Mortar these two month…”


May 232020

A while back I was fortunate enough to buy a Rowlandson print, entitled ‘Giving up the Ghost, or, one too many’. Needless to say my wife hates it and is not inclined to let me  display it on the living room walls. Which is a shame because in these gloomy times, when every single news item dwells on sickness, mortality rates and medics unable to cope, it is good to be cheered up with the thought that illness, death and  doctors have been around for rather a long time. Humour is wherever you choose to find it – in the depiction of death, lurking outside the window, arrow poised, or the chamber pot under the bed, or the doctor happily snoring away in a chair in the corner – or the soon-to-be deceased lying with his toes curled up.

The British Museum site describes the print as being ‘by Thomas Rowlandson, after Richard Newton,’ and dates it as being from 1813. It has this to say:

A dying man, wearing a tattered shirt, lies stretched on a miserable bed under a casement window, through which looks Death, a skeleton holding up an hour-glass and a javelin which he points menacingly at his victim. A fat doctor (left) sits asleep at the bedside (left) while an undertaker’s man, with a coffin on his back, and holding a crêpe-bound mute’s wand, enters from the right as if smelling out death. The doctor wears old-fashioned dress, with powdered wig, and has a huge gold-headed cane. Beside him are the words:
“I purge I bleed I sweat em
Then if they Die I Lets em”

I must admit I knew very little about the practice of having mutes at funerals, or that the sticks they carried were called wands, so I am grateful to the History Extra site for giving this helpful information:

The mute’s job was to stand vigil outside the door of the deceased, then accompany the coffin, wearing dark clothes, looking solemn and usually carrying a long stick (called a wand) covered in black crape.Charles Dickens’s best-known mute is Oliver Twist, employed by the undertaker Sowerberry for children’s funerals. Most, though, were adult males, and were common in several European countries from the 17th century onwards, as ceremonial ‘protectors’ of the deceased. The fashion was probably inspired by the ancient Roman practice of assigning lictors (bodyguards of civic officials) to escort the funerals of prominent citizens.

There are plenty of accounts of mutes in Britain by the 1700s, and by Dickens’s time their attendance at even relatively modest funerals was almost mandatory. They were a key part of the Victorians’ extravagant mourning rituals, which Dickens often savaged as pointlessly, and often ruinously, expensive. In Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance: “Two mutes were at the house-door, looking as mournful as could reasonably be expected of men with such a thriving job in hand.” Mutes died out in the 1880s/90s and were a memory by 1914. Dickens played his part in their demise, as did fashion. Victorian funeral etiquette was complex and constantly changing, as befitted a huge industry, which partly depended on status anxiety for the huge profits Dickens criticised. What did for them most of all, though, was becoming figures of fun – mournful and sober at the funeral, but often drunk shortly afterwards.

Ah well, on that cheerful note I will go back to thinking where I can hang my Rowlandson print without causing a domestic scene….

Apr 142019

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!



Apr 302017

Richard dentist


“Thursday 16th

Had a very indifferent night the past, with my Tooth – today was enabled to go through the operation of having it drawn out, which gave me great relief.  Part fine, part dull, not very cold.”










In his diaries my ancestor Richard Hall makes mention of several trips to the dentist – and it gives me the shudders just to think of what that would have entailed in an era before anaesthetics. But at least Richard was already in pain – and the procedure was aimed at reducing that discomfort. Imagine what it must have been like for someone with perfectly good teeth, volunteering  to have an

Extracting a tooth, by William Henry Bunbury

Extracting a tooth, by William Henry Bunbury

extraction. Why would they do that? Money. It is a fact of life that in some countries today people feel compelled to sell their organs to raise cash to pay off their debts – the trade in kidneys in India being a case in point. But in Georgian England the craze was for the rich (a description synonymous with excessive eating, rich foods – and gum disease) – to replace their blackened, stinking, stumps with nice fine white teeth. Where were  they going to get such pearly white replacements? Why, from the poor who, on account of their sugar-free diets, generally did not suffer from bad teeth.


This fashion started to become popular in the last 20 years of the 18th Century – before the trend to use ‘Waterloo Teeth’ ie the teeth removed from the corpses found on the battlefield of Waterloo, and harvested for dentists to use back in Britain. In her ‘Memoirs’ the writer Laetitia Matilda Hawkins tells the story of an impecunious Emma Hart, way before she became the mistress of Horatio Nelson, deciding to sell her front gnashers in order to pay off her debts. On the way to the dentist to face the horrors of the tooth-puller she met a fellow servant and was talked into selling something altogether different – her virtue. Somehow I think she made a wise choice – I doubt if she would ever have snared the Hero of the Nile if she had greeted him with a broad gummy grin where her front teeth had originally been.

John Hunter had been at the forefront of popularising the idea of using transplants: his book “Natural History of the Human Tooth” suggested that the dentist should always have  at least two potential donors in attendance. If the first one didn’t have teeth which fitted the recipient, try the stand-by! Once the dentist had found an approximate fit, he would then hold it firmly in position by wiring it in to the adjoining teeth. Other dentists used replacement teeth made out of pottery, ivory, bone or even gold. Contrary to some reports they were not made out of wood, which would have gone soggy and broken apart due to the acidity of the mouth.

The transplanted teeth did not of course grow – but there are instances where they remained in place for months, and sometimes even years. What had started as a craze in London spread to Paris. There, the dentist Pierre Le Mayeur perfected the technique before heading to America to make his fortune.

George Washington's dentures, courtesy of Mount Vernon

George Washington’s dentures, courtesy of Mount Vernon

He even treated George Washington and we know that Washington wore dentures – but there is no record that he received any transplanted teeth. However, his aide, Colonel Richard Varick, certainly did receive transplanted teeth – prompting Washington to write this fulsome endorsement: “I have been staggered in my belief at the efficacy of transplantation of living teeth”.

The New York newspapers of 1784 carried  advertisements from Le Mayeur, offering payment of £2.2.0 (two guineas) for a set of front teeth “on applying to Number 28 Maiden Lane New York.” Apparently there were not enough takers, and by the time Le Mayeur reached Richmond he was offering five guineas a tooth – “slaves teeth excepted.”

The latter comment reminds me that when I did my university thesis on organ transplantation nearly half a century ago I was in correspondence with a certain Christian Barnard, who of course used a non-white donor for the first heart transplant – into a white person. But 200-odd years ago, slave teeth were not considered suitable. Le Mayeur went on to advertise that he had transplanted upwards of a hundred and twenty teeth during a six month period “and that not one of his operations has failed of the wished-for success”. In practice however, few transplants stayed firmly in place for even six months, and back in England dentists were already pouring scorn on the practice. The view of Thomas Berdmore* and William Rae, both dentists to George III, was that the operations were “dangerous and immoderately expensive”. In particular they were of the opinion that the only way you could get a good fix was if the root of the tooth being transplanted was of the identical length, shape and size as the one which had just been removed. Mind you, that merely prompted the unscrupulous dentists of the period to resort to “re-planting” i.e. taking out the old tooth,  filling it, disguising the discolouration – and putting it straight back into its original socket without the recipient being any the wiser as to where his “new” tooth had come from!

Anyway, I am grateful to John Woodforde for his book ‘The Strange Story of False Teeth’ for the information which I have used: now for what I really like, a quick look at how caricaturists liked to show dentistry!

Transplanting of Teeth by Thos Rowlandson 1787

First up, a rather appropriate Thomas Rowlandson print shown courtesy of the British Museum site, and which first appeared in 1787. It is entitled ‘Transplanting of Teeth’ and the site contains this explanation:

“A fashionable dentist is extracting the teeth of the poor in order to insert ‘live teeth’ immediately into the jaws of his patients. In the centre a young chimney-sweep sits in an arm-chair, over the back of which the dentist leans, holding the boy’s head, and inserting an instrument into his mouth. Next (left) a lady sits in a similar chair watching the sweep with a pained and angry expression; she holds a smelling-bottle to her nose; she has just endured an extraction and is about to receive a transplantation. On the right a good-looking young lady leans back, her fists clenched in pain, while a spectacled dentist peers closely into her face, placing his instrument in her mouth. Behind her a lean, ugly, and elderly man wearing regimentals stands in profile to the right, holding a mirror in which he inspects his mouth with a dissatisfied expression. On the left a ragged boy and girl are leaving the room, both crying with pain: the girl inspects the coin in her hand. On the door is a placard: ‘Most Money Given for live Teeth’. A placard on the wall is headed by a coronet and two ducks, indicating quackery: ‘Baron Ron——Dentist to her High Mightiness the Empress of Russia’.


Another Rowlandson, on a more general dentistry theme, is this one from 1811, showing the proud (French) dentist displaying his handiwork ie a full set of artificial dentures:

Rowlandson's French Dentist 1811

Other artists loved depicting the cruelty and barbarism of the dentist. Here we have ‘The Dentist, or teeth drawn with a touch’ by Robert Sayer from 1790-2The Dentist or teeth drawn with a touch by Robert Sayer 1790-2

Or how about this one:The London Dentist after Robert Dighton pubd Bowles & CarverIt is entitled ‘The London Dentist’ and is described as being ‘ after Robert Dighton’ and was  published by  Bowles & Carver in or shortly after 1784. But for my money I always like the drawings made by John Collier, sometimes described as ‘the Lancashire Hogarth’. He used the pseudonym Timothy Bobbin:


I recall doing a blog post once before about John Collier and dentistry – here. So I will end with another chance to see one of the images which I used at the time – with the sadistic tooth puller brandishing a red hot coal under the nose of the ‘patient/victim’, forcing him to pull his head backwards thereby pulling out the tooth.

Shown courtesy of the Wellcome Institute

Shown courtesy of the Wellcome Institute

And for anyone planning a trip to the dentist later today – my apologies!


*PS I recall doing a separate blog on royal dentist Thomas Berdmore five years ago here.

Apr 112016
Thomas Rowlandson's The Comforts of Bath

Thomas Rowlandson’s The Comforts of Bath

This week My Dear Lady Wife goes into hospital for a hip replacement operation – hopefully it will give her back some of the mobility lost in recent years. Anyway, it got me thinking about 18th century methods of getting broken bones to “knit”. In this context it is worth mentioning that my ancestor Richard Hall broke his leg when he was 22, jumping a ditch and falling awkwardly. The newspaper carried a report of the injury, with an article in the London Evening Penny Post for Monday September 9th 1751 recording:


The resulting injury left Richard in periodic pain for the rest of his life, and caused him to limp. As an old man, he recalls “being follow’d around the village while the boys called out “Hobbledee-Hall”. He doubtless pretended to object and wave his cane at them, since he used a crutch, finding it a hardship to stand still. This is his record of paying out three shillings and sixpence for  the “crutch cane”


Richard’s own library gives an interesting insight into the way a broken limb was treated. Rather like someone today buying The Readers Digest Book of Home Medicine, Richard bought Dr Buchan’s Domestic Medicine when the Second Edition came out in 1785. It has the following advice:

“WHEN a large bone is broken, the patient’s diet ought, in all respects, to be the same as in an inflammatory fever. He should likewise be kept quiet and cool, and his body open by emollient clysters, or, if these cannot be conveniently administered, by food that is of an opening quality; as stewed prunes, apples boiled in milk, boiled spinage, and the like.

IT will generally be necessary to bleed the patient immediately after a fracture, especially if he be young, of a full habit, or has, at the same time, received any bruise or contusion. This operation should not only be performed soon after the accident happens, but if the patient be very feverish, it may be repeated next day.

IF any of the large bones which support the body are broken, the patient must keep his bed for several weeks. It is by no means necessary, however, that he should lie all that time upon his back. This situation sinks the spirits, galls and frets the patient’s skin, and renders him very uneasy. After the second week he may be gently raised up, and may sit several hours, supported by a bed-chair, or the like, which will greatly relieve him. Great care, however, must be taken in raising him up, and laying him down, that he make no exertions himself, otherwise the action of the muscles may pull the bone out of its place.

IT is of great importance to keep the patient dry and clean while in this situation. By neglecting this, he is often so galled and excoriated, that he is forced to keep shifting places for ease. I have known a fractured thigh-bone, after it had laid straight for above a fortnight, displaced by this means, and continue bent for life, in spite of all that could be done.

IT has been customary when a bone was broken, to keep the limb for five or six weeks continually upon the stretch, But this is a bad posture. It is both uneasy to the patient, and unfavourable to the cure.

THE best situation is to keep the limb a little bent. This is the posture into which every animal puts its limbs when it goes to rest, and in which fewest muscles are upon the stretch. It is easily effected by either laying the patient upon his side, or making the bed so as to favour this position of the limb.

ALL that art can do towards the cure of a broken bone, is to lay it perfectly straight, and to keep it quite easy. All tight bandages do hurt. They had much better be wanting altogether. A great many of the bad consequences which succeed to fractured bones are owing to tight bandages. This is one of the ways in which the excess of art, or rather the abuse of it, does more mischief than would be occasioned by the want of it. Some of the most sudden cures of broken bones which were ever known, happened where no bandages were applied at all. Some method however must be taken to keep the member steady; but this may be done many ways without bracing it with a tight bandage.

THE best method of retention is by two or more splints made of leather or pasteboard. These, if moistened before they be applied, soon assume the shape of the included member, and are sufficient, by the assistance of a very slight bandage, for all the purposes of retention.”

Anatomia Pathologique du corps Humain, book 2 (1835–1842) by J. Cruveilhier a representation of a dislocated femur

Anatomia Pathologique du corps Humain, book 2 (1835–1842) by J. Cruveilhier
a representation of a dislocated femur

So, we can assume that Richard was fed his diet of prunes, bled with leeches, made to lie on his side, and wrapped in wet leather and told to lie still for six weeks. Try telling that to a 22 year old! More about Richard can of course be found in The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman.


As for my wife, I am hopeful that she will spend three days in hospital (and this being Spain, I stay in hospital with her) and she should then be able to walk and manage stairs. No wet leather bandages, no prunes, and hopefully no leeches … medicine has certainly progressed over the past 250 years!

I am aware that leeches have made a bit of a comeback in recent years – and I can remember that the old family doctor who looked after me as a child used to tell me stories about how in the 1920s he would prescribe leeches. You got them from the local pharmacy, and you paid according to when they had last been fed. The hungrier they were the more expensive it was to hire them! After use, you would then return them to the pharmacy ready for the next patient….

RH4                                    Image courtesy of Bamfords, auctioneers.

Feb 232016

Richard Hall liked to jot down helpful remedies and cures – here, a recipe to prevent a miscarriage.

miscarriageGiven that Richard’s first wife  had at least half a dozen  miscarriages, and just three live births, one suspects that there may have been frequent visits to Mr Godfrey the Chymist at his premises in Southampton Street. I will leave it to others to clarify what was meant by ‘spirit of clary’ – I can trace an essential oil with the botanical name “Salvia sclarea” otherwise known as Sage Clary, which may (or may not) have  its origins with spirit of clary. The site for Spiritual Oils gives this as its history:

“History: Descriptions of the medicinal use of Clary sage date back to the writings of Theophrastus (4th century BCE), Dioscorides (1st century CE), and Pliny the Elder (1st century CE). It was particularly popular during the Middle Ages, when it  was known as “clear eye,” “Oculus Christi” (the eyes of Christ), and “muscatel sage,” due to its resemblance to muscatel wine grape vines. In modern times, it is used to enhance the flavor of commercial tobacco.”

Anyway, mix it with “Mountain” (i.e. mountain wine, which generally meant any wine which did not come from France and which probably came  either from Malaga in Spain, or from Portugal), some oak bud water, a pint of best  wine, and flavour it with saffron and sugar’d carraway, and if you knock back a quarter pint of the gloop morning and evening  all will be well.  And if it isn’t, then please take the matter up with Mrs Stringer, not me!

My only concern: how do you get hold of oak bud water at any other time of the year except the Spring? What if you are foolish enough to get pregnant in high summer? Oh well, back to the drawing board…..



Sep 142015
(c) Penrhyn Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir Samuel Pennant 1709 – 1750. Attributed to Isaac Seeman, and shown courtesy of the National Trust, it shows him wearing his badge  of office as Lord Mayor.

Spare a thought for the Old Bailey court officials in the  Eighteenth Century, for theirs was not always an easy or pleasant task. Look no further than the fate which befell the Lord Mayor of London, one Sir Samuel Pennant, in 1750. Along with Sir Thomas Abney, judge of the Common-Pleas, the under-sheriff, some of the counsel, several of the jury, and another fifty or so other court officials, dignitaries and dogsbodies – all met their death. Why? Because they caught typhus, which had spread from the adjoining prison, the notorious Newgate Gaol.

Typhus, generally known as gaol fever, killed far more prisoners in the Eighteenth century than were ever sentenced to death by the honourable judges. One report at the time suggested that a quarter of the prison population died of typhus, which was a bacteria spread through the bites of the lice and fleas which flourished in the unsanitary conditions of the prisons. Oh, and by the way, although ‘typhoid’ means ‘of or pertaining to typhus’ the disease of ‘typhoid’ has no connection with typhus. Different bacteria altogether….

Court of Sessions building, Old Bailey.

The Sessions House, Old Bailey.

It is not as if people were unaware of the link between the fetid unhygienic conditions in which prisoners were kept, and the fatal illness which thrived. Indeed when the Old Bailey buildings had been rebuilt after the Great Fire of London, a large part of the proceedings took place in the yard, open to all weathers. This was so that officials were not confined to stuffy rooms, and it helped lessen the chance of disease spreading. But in the 1730’s the decision was made to re-face the building with large masonry blocks and to reduce the width of the access in order to prevent the mob storming the building. In turn it meant that the yard was closed off, along with the fresh air that it brought to the court.


(c) National Trust, Penrhyn Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir Samuel Pennant. (c) National Trust, Penrhyn Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Poor Sir Samuel: he had only been made Lord Mayor the year before. The National Trust have two splendid portraits of him in all his finery. Clock the gold embroidery – that is some waistcoat!  But it was no protection against the spread of the typhus bacteria. With sixty officials perishing in the one outbreak it is surprising that it took another twenty five years to rebuild the Sessions House. Meanwhile, people obviously assumed that there was a link between the actual stench and the disease. To this day judges on formal parades carry nosegays, as a reminder of the long-held belief that aromatic herbs would lessen the risk of fever. So important was it to mask the foul odours that on 9 Oct 1772 the Annual Register remarked: “ Several workmen were this day employed at the Old Bailey in making a new ventilator, and other necessary precautions, to prevent the effects of any malignant distemper in the ensuing sessions, several persons having died, who attended the last session. Among other precautions, a contrivance is made, by a pipe, to carry the fumes of vinegar into the Sessions House, while the court is sitting.”

In practice a new court of sessions building was constructed, opening in 1774. I have no idea when they stopped pumping in vinegar fumes, but it is interesting to see these early experiments in trying to impose standards of hygiene which would combat disease.

Oct 302014

a2I have previously shown this lovely Rowlandson sketch of the good doctor undergoing a course of cupping, apparently to alleviate the symptoms of bruising. I assume the doctor in question was Dr Syntax and that he had a bruised backside from spending too long in the saddle. Numb bum time! I love the indignity of the naked old man being subjected to pain while being administered to by half a dozen onlookers, most of them female!

It reminded me to look out a blog I did a couple of years ago when I used Posterous (thank you WordPress, all is forgiven!)

a1Cupping, as shown on Gwyneth Paltrow´s back when she attended a New York film premiere in 2004, has been around for many hundreds of years. While the treatment may cause unpleasant looking blisters and skin discolouration these effects are short lived. It is thought that the cupping procedure helps reduce stress and pain. The person doing the cupping places small heated glass bowls – in this case across the back – and the heat causes a vacuum leading to the skin swelling. It apparently leads to increased blood flow and all sorts of beneficial results.The picture appeared on the BBC website using an image supplied by LFI (sorry, I cannot identify where credit is due any more than that).

While modern sceptics may dismiss it as an alternative medicine without proven results the fact remains that it has been popular for centuries, way before Richard notes it in his diary for 7th December 1768 where he records:

“Cupped at the Bagnio,  Newgate Street, 3/6d”

Richard would needed to have known which bagnios were respectable. In theory they were simply hot-water baths open to the public but in practice the term was often a euphemism for a brothel! Choose the wrong bagnio and you might catch something rather worse than blisters!

Bagnio scene, courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

“A Bagnio scene, with a white legg’d Chicken coaxking an old Dotard” courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library


18th Century medicine seems to have relished causing blisters, and then piercing them “to remove toxins”. On one occasion Richard had toothache and the doctor inserted a small dried pea behind his ear (as one does).  After a day or two the side of Richard´s head would no doubt have swollen with the irritation; the pea was removed; the fluid drained and hey presto the toothache was expected to have disappeared!

In practice I suspect that Richard felt such a huge relief at no longer having the irritant behind his ear that he completely forgot about his other aches and pains…

If you are interested in other quack remedies and treatments do have a look at the Journal of a Georgian Gentleman – there are a number of cures and recipes dotted around in the book and in particular in the appendices. Meanwhile I am busy researching bagnios as part of the background to “Sex Scandal and Satire – in bed with the Georgians” – since much of the  action seems to have been based there!

To end with, a drawing of ladies drumming up business outside the Turks Head Bagnio, shown courtesy of the Library of Congress. I love the detail in the drawing, with the fire plate for the Union Fire Office, and the cat symbolically sitting on the upstairs window ledge…