Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A Gift of Purses, Porpoises, and Pebbles


Christmas is finally over (for most of us).  I don’t know about you, but I’ve both given and received some pretty weird presents for both Christmas and birthdays.  To those trying to figure out what to do with that purple crystal elephant figurine received from Aunt Joan – just remember, it could be worse. 

No really, it could. 

To make you feel better I’ve compiled a list of a few of the weirdest presents given to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753).

Why Sir Hans?  Well Dr. Sloane was a famous London physician, he had a great interest in the natural world, catalogued hundreds of new plant species in Jamaica, treated many a famous person, was a fellow of and secretary to the Royal Society, and most importantly, really liked to collect what he termed “curiosities.”  Oh, and he invented the milk chocolate beverage.  The drink was sold by both apothecaries and Cadbury.

Upon his death, Sir Hans bequeathed his amazing collection to the “nation” and it became the foundation of the British Museum.  As a physician and gentleman, Sir Hans was part of a larger network of natural philosophers who sought to explore and understand the world in which they lived.  Sir Hans’s books, manuscripts, and other curiosities can also be found in the British Library and the Natural History Museum.

Bust of Sir Hans from the British Museum.

 1) A Really Gross Story

Titled “An Account of Maggots Taken Out of A Mans Ear” and dated 2 August, 1702, this odd story was gifted to Sloane from one J. Hare Vic. De Cardington.

 “A younge man my house where lodged complained two or three days of a pain in right ear whch had been subject to a running humor, in which time was applyd to it some wool clean pickd and a little clarified honey which gave him but little ease. at length a maid servant of the house perceived his ear something bloudy and upon her searching saw something working in his ear like maggots upon which a neighbouring woman was sent for who applyd to it ye steam of warm milk and a little after I was desird to see him and searching his ear could plainly perceive a great number of Insects working in ye Conduit of his ear and by degrees I pickd out 24 large maggots in shape and colour like those that commonly breed in putrefied flesh.  I could still perceive more remaining behind but being distrubed they workd so farr into the cavity of ye ear that I could not easily then them out, upon which I left him for about an hour (in which time he was very uneasy and ful of paines and then returning to him I could at furst perceive nothing but a thin bloody matter but by degees they workd outward and I pickd out nine more, after this he found himself more at ease upon whch we concluded that there were no more; the next day he found himself better and complains no more of ye pain.  The nicer consideration of this I leave to ye curious but ye matter of fact I affirm and in Testimony have subscribed my name.
J. Hare Vic. De Cardington, Bedford Th.”

Maden.jpg
Yes, those kinds of maggots.  Just in case that wasn't clear.
 2) Bones

Gifted to Sloane by a poor country surgeon named Bezaleel Sherman.  Sherman, a complete stranger, sent Sloane “a curiosity which I thought might not be unacceptable to you, tis the bones of a calf that perished in the uterus of its Damme.”  About 12ish years later, Sherman wrote Sloane again, reminding him of the gift, and requesting that Sloane “procure me by yt interest a subscription for 500 in the South Sea the next time ye books are open’d for that purpose.”

Not only did Sherman give Sloane random foetal bones, but he followed that up with a request for a favour.  Decidedly not a good gift giver was he? 

Well, Sherman knew his audience well.  His letter describing the bones was published, by Sir Hans, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1708 and can be read here: http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/26/313-324/450.full.pdf

3) A Rock

Dated July 13, 1730.  This particular gift from John Beaumont, a surgeon and geologist, was particularly amusing in its description. 

“Sir I have send you a smal prsent for yr great facours & wish I could tell where ye stone was found but came to my hand accidentally so yt I know it not.”

Yes, Beaumont sent Sloane a rock without provenance.

Not the first or only time Sloane was gifted with rocks.  His dear friend, the physician Archibald Pitcairne sent Sloane a single stone from the Elb River in September, 1701.
Photo from Natural History Museum.  One of Sir Hans's specimen trays used to organize various curiosities.  This particular tray includes several rock varieties.
4) (A Story About) A Horned Woman


“Finding you to be a Gentleman that is a great Lover of Curiosities make bold to Acquaint you that I think I may boldly say I have y'e greatest Rarity that perhaps was ever seen it is a Woman who hath a natural Horn of Ten Inches long growing out of y'e Back part of he Head it is curled & twisted exactly like a Sheeps Horn & of a yellowish Colour growing out of a Bunch like a Wen of which there are several more on her Head bu what they may produce we cannot as yet Determine. If your Worship is pleas'd to view her I will do my self the Honour to wait on you when & where you shall please to appoint she having not yet been Publickly seen.
I am S'r
with all Respect
your most Obedient serv't Isaack Fawks” 

5) A Collection of Really Odd Things

Dated 6 August, 1724, Mr. John Bell’s letter details a list of items he had gifted Sloane. 

These include:
1) a large fly
2) a flower certificate
3) pebbles
4) a picture painted with the urine of a tortoise
5) a root that grows in Shamansky, Siberia and causes drunkeness when powdered and ingested

BONUS "gift": A Purse (from Ben Franklin, no less)

The asbestos purse remained part of the British Museum collection (Minerology Dept) and now belongs to the Natural History Museum in London.

In 1725 Benjamin Franklin found himself a bit short on funds.  Knowing that he possessed a number of North American curiosities and a market in Sloane, Franklin wrote the following:
Having lately been in the Northern Parts of America, I have brought from thence a Purse
made of the stone Asbestos, a Piece of the Stone, and a Piece of Wood, the Pithy Part of which is of the same Nature, and called by the Inhabitants salamander Cotton. As you are noted to be a Lover of Curiosities I have inform'd you of these, and if you have any  Inclination to purchase them, or see them, let me know your Pleasure by a Line directed for me at the Golden Fan in Little Britain, and I will wait upon you with them.
I am, Sir your most humble servant
Benjamin Franklin
P.S. I expect to be out of Town in 2 or 3 Days, and therefore beg an immediate Answer”

Franklin was being a bit gauche.  Here he hinted clumsily that he wanted Sloane to buy, rather than just look at, the items and was definitely posturing with his request for an immediate answer.  

We don't have any record of how Sloane remembered their meeting, but in a bit of creative memory modification Franklin later recast the episode to involve Sloane eagerly approaching him!  He later wrote:

I had brought over a few Curiosities among which the principal was a purse made of the Asbestos, which purifies by fire. Sir Hans Sloane heard of it, came to see me, and invited me to his House in Bloomsbury Square; where he show'd me all his Curiosities, and persuaded me to let him add that to the Number, for which he paid me handsomely.

How did your Christmas presents measure up?  Let me know here or on twitter - I'm @medhistorian.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Patronage And Getting Away With Murder



The other night I caught a news special dedicated to explaining that a humanities education was, essentially, a worthless investment.  A more successful investment – that does not include living in your parents’ basement – meant pursuing a trade instead.  Now, for those of you who know me, you’ve already been treated to the rant about the decline of the humanities and the undervaluing of a classic education that teaches you how to think critically and function as productive citizens within a democratic society. 

But that’s a whole other rant for a whole other time in a whole other blog.

So how does any of that relate to the history of medicine?  Well, it doesn’t yet, but I’m getting there.  The same economist went on to extol networking as one of the most important tools that allows a humanities-educated 20something year old to find gainful employment.[1]  She said, roughly paraphrased, that networking was a valuable and time-honoured method of gaining employment – the world has always worked that way and always would.

Alright, fair enough.  I did just edit a chapter or two on the value of intellectual and social networks, formal patronage, and more informal “friendship” to the professionalization of surgery in the seventeenth century.  Patronage and early modern “friendship” – despite the nuances embedded in those historical terms – are recognizable to us as forms of networking.  Moreover, they did play very key roles in helping surgery, as a field, progress to the respected profession it is today.   

The medical field was in state of flux for the three hundred years typically considered “early modern.”  Definitions, professional boundaries, the nature of the body and disease were consistently negotiated, renegotiated, and redefined in the period.  Ideally, “surgeons” were to treat the outward signs of illness, cuts, wounds etc. and only do so with invasive surgery or outward medicines like bandages and balms.  “Physicians” or “doctors,” on the other hand, were allowed to treat using medications meant to be taken inwardly.

In reality, terms like “surgeon” or “doctor” often referred to practitioners who crossed each other’s occupational boundaries.  Moreover, these medical practitioners sometimes also practiced as apothecaries, weavers, and even smiths![2]  To complicate things further, in London, there were three competing bodies that governed medical practice: the Company of Barbers and Surgeons, the College of Physicians, and the church.

This was obviously a recipe for disaster.  London-based surgical practitioners – both within and outside of the Company of Barbers and Surgeons – frequently clashed with the College of Physicians over occupational boundaries, patients, and everything else under the sun.  The relationship between surgeons and physicians was not always negative.  The Company and College cooperated for anatomies and lectures while many individual practitioners treated patients together and were even friends.

On occasion, a particularly egregious case exacerbated tensions between the two groups and their governing bodies.  At the beginning of the 17th century, the College was faced with a troublesome surgeon who proved that even frequent and flagrant flouting of College strictures could be attenuated by patron power. 

Roger Jenkins, a member of the Weavers’ company and later member of the Barber Surgeon’s Company, is present in at least 20 entries in the Annals for various disciplinary hearings.  His modus operandi, it seemed, was to prescribe strong purging remedies that - on occasion - killed his patients.  On 2 April, 1599 he was found guilty of prescribing purging diets for pox patients.  He was summoned several times with all charges dismissed as he refused to admit to practicing internal medicine if there were no witnesses called against him.  
In November 1601, upon the confession that he had given multiple purgatives to ulcer patients, the College’s patience ran out and they sought to prosecute Jenkins to the full extent of the law.  The Jenkins case proved key in the College’s continued prosecution of surgical practitioners.  Jenkins’ defense, rested largely upon his claim that:


“I am a surgeon, he said, and in the work of surgery it is often necessary to use internal medicines.” 

This proved to be Jenkins’ downfall. The Chief Justice of England, Sir John Popham, was called in to adjudicate the case and upon review of the Acts relating to the College and Company, stated that surgeons were not to practice physick.  His later statements served to further reinforce the power of the College to both license and police medical practice.

Sir John Popham
  Jenkins’ continued problems with the College had, apparently, not decreased his standing in the eyes of the Company.  On 6 May, 1602  he was made free of the Weavers’ Company and admitted as a brother to practice surgery.  Despite imprisonment and fines, Jenkins continued his physick practice and was once again convicted by the College on 3 August, 1604.  Rather than just prescribing, on this occasion, Jenkins was also found guilty of creating and selling medicines out of his home. 

At this point, however, Jenkins’ status as a practitioner had changed – he was now attached to the household of an influential man.  The College response is telling: “partly on account of such a frank confession but particularly because of the position of the Lord who he served (that most honourable man the Lord Chamberlain) on this occasion we allowed him to depart.”  After informing the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Suffolk, of his surgeon’s misdeeds, they were informed that Jenkins would be punished by Suffolk himself and ordered to cease his practice.  

Lord Chamberlain Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk and Jenkins' patron.
In the years thereafter, Jenkins was examined and approved to practice surgery and presented to the Dean of St. Paul’s in 1607.  He evidently became wealthy; enough so to voluntarily offer the Company £20 towards the contribution to the plantation of Ireland.  College censure, though both harsh and repeated, did not much affect Jenkins’ practice. 

Indeed, one wonders how seriously he was chastised – or, conversely, was protected by – Suffolk.  By 6 November, 1612, Jenkins is once again present in the College Annals.  Despite being summoned several times and confessing his practice, he was never again fined or imprisoned.

Jenkins may have gotten away - quite literally - with murder, but his case had long ranging repercussions:

1. It reinforced the importance to practitioners of powerful patrons and networks.
2. It exacerbated the problems between the College of Physicians and the Company of Barbers and Surgeons.
3. Popham's ruling emphasized the power of the College - and the superiority of physicians - over the Company and surgeons.

What do you think of Jenkins and his patron?  Is reliance on a patron to this extent acceptable?  Should the Company have stepped in and sanctioned a surgeon hurting their reputation and relationship with the College?  Comment here or on twitter @medhistorian


[1] I remain unaware of the statistics surrounding humanities-educated PhDs who received tenure-track positions based on the connections of their parents and their parents’ friends.
[2] For that reason, I tend to use the term “surgical practitioner” in my work; “surgeon” seems a bit of a misnomer on many occasions.