Author: Lisa Smith

Storms, Sounds and Authorship

The wind has been wildly whipping the last few days, putting me on edge. It doesn’t help that the wind makes the neighbourhood noisier than usual: clanking gates, blowing cans… The normally distant rumble of the tube train suddenly passes right down our street, while the planes seem to fly right over our roof. The weather can do funny things to sound.

Tableau of William Derham (1657 – 1735), an English clergyman and natural philosopher. Source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Palthrow.

Tableau of William Derham (1657 – 1735), an English clergyman and natural philosopher. Source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Palthrow.

Back in 1708, William Derham was inspired by his observations on weather and sound to publish on the motion of sound in the Philosophical Transactions. Derham’s letters to Sloane show how Derham had carefully thought about the subject for years before his article appeared. Academic writers will have much sympathy for Derham’s path toward publication.

In January 1704/5, Derham was confident that he was “setteling the business of the Flight of Sounds, which may be of good use”. He had ten questions and was happy to add more if anyone in the Royal Society had any; by the time he published, there were nineteen questions. Derham was charting the sound of gunfire to determine what factors affected sound, such as the type of winds and weather, size of gun, time of day, and direction of the shot.

Many credible authorities, from the Florentine Academy to Isaac Newton, had differed on the question of “What Space Sounds fly in a Second or any determinate Time?” To settle the matter, Derham repeated their experiments and at greater distances. The answer seemed close:

I have allmost satisfied my self about all the former Enquiries, which when I have fully done I will impart it to the Society. I only want a few Guns from the Tower or some such large distance (which I could see in the Evening) to fully confirm what I have already done.

Derham was more guarded by April 1705. He reported that he was not as close to finishing his experiments as he’d hoped. Having met “with fresh matters” that nobody had ever observed before, he was “cautious of determining any thing precipitatly; & therefore I shall yet delay giving the Society an account of what I have done”.

Lithograph by C.H. Bacle,  19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A light-hearted picture, but I hasten to add that Derham did not use women’s skirts to test his theories on sound. Lithograph by C.H. Bacle, 19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

What he could tell them was that “Storms do accelerate Sounds, wch I did not discover (only suspect) till last Fryday” when he had been timing the sound of guns fired at Blackheath. Contrary winds resulted in delays, while high winds sped the sounds up. But to test his theory, he needed more guns. Derham reassured Sloane that he would “use my greatest care in all this matter” because his newest observations differed so greatly from those of others–and “perhaps the Societys reputation my be somewhat hurt by any neglect or want of an act”.

In December 1706, Derham was still working on the project. He had only just found “an excellent semi-circle to take the Angles, & thereby the distances of the places from whence I observed the Flight of Sounds”. This, he noted, “was the only thing that hath delayed the me from imparting my Observations on that subject.” And in April 1707, he referred in passing to using triangulation to measure sound.

Finally, Derham sent off his observations in February 1707/8. His letter hints at his relief, as well as his hope that the article would be published as soon as possible.

I have sent you my Observations about Sounds; which as it hath cost me some pains, so I hope will be acceptable to you, & the most illustrious Society. If you think it worth publishing in the Transactions, I desire you will be pleased to put it into one of the next.

A week later, Derham’s anxiety emerges more clearly when he wondered whether Sloane had even received the article: “Be pleased to let me know whether you recd my account of Sounds with my Packet of Lrs from Florence.”

The article was intended to be Derham’s Important Work (and it was), appearing as it did in Latin rather than the English he usually used for his Phil. Trans. submissions. It also took up a full thirty-three pages. With his careful measurements, increased distances, and use of instruments, Derham provided a more accurate assessment of the speed of sound than previous scholars.

It’s just a shame that Derham never mentioned his mysterious Japanese (?) co-author anywhere in his letters to Sloane…

According to a data entry howler error in the online Phil. Trans., Soni Motu was the first author on the article. How’s that for revisioning history?

Soni Moto

On Asses’ Milk

Donkey, from Buffon, Histoire naturelle des mineraux, 1749-1804. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Donkey, from Buffon, Histoire naturelle des mineraux, 1749-1804. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It’s not often that I have an a-ha moment when reading a Daily Fail article. And it chokes me to even admit that I had one on Boxing Day as I perused “Could DONKEY MILK be the elixir of life?”.

The Sloane Letters have several references to eighteenth-century patients drinking asses’ milk. It was never held up as an elixir of life, but was thought to be particularly useful in treating lung ailments (as with the Viscount Lymington in 1722), blood problems (in the case of Catherine Henley) and emotional troubles (the Duchess of Beaufort’s hysteria in 1705). But one thing that always intrigued me was the lengths to which patients would go to get asses’ milk; why, I wondered, did it seem like such a faff to find a lactating donkey?

In 1723, Robert Holdwsorth reported that Lady Middleton had provided his wife with a goat and an ass so she could drink milk, as per Hans Sloane’s prescription. Mrs Holdsworth had stopped drinking the milk, though, as it disagreed with her. (A common complaint!) On its own, this might just seem like an act of kindness on Lady Middleton’s part—but it was likely darned helpful for the Holdsworths to have a friend in high places who could help in finding an ass.

The Duke of Bedford, for example, wanted to drink asses’ milk in 1724, as Sloane had recommended for an eye problem. Unfortunately, the Duke had been unable to procure an ass in the country and had needed to send to Streatham (another family holding) for one. As the letter was sent from his seat at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire and Streatham is over fifty miles away in Surrey, the ass came from quite a distance.

Asses suckling children.  From: Infant feeding by artificial means : a scientific and practical treatise on the dietetics of infancy By: S.H. Sadler. Credit" Wellcome Library, London.

Asses suckling children.
From: S.H. Sadler, Infant feeding by artificial means : a scientific and practical treatise on the dietetics of infancy, 1895.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

As Sally Osborn tells us at The Recipes Project, there are lots of eighteenth-century recipes for artificial asses’ milk. One version included snails boiled in milk with eringo root and brown sugar. Yum.

Donkey milk is good stuff, by several counts, being the closest in composition to human milk. Although early modern people wouldn’t have known these details, Sloane and other physicians prescribed it regularly and patients were often curious to try it. Mrs Reynolds wondered in 1725 whether Sloane might recommend that she try asses’ milk to help her general weakness. He did, as he scrawled “lact. asen.” on her letter.

It turns out that asses’ milk is still hard to get today. Across Europe, the average price is over £40 per litre. Female donkeys produce only a litre of milk per day for about half they ear and can only produce milk when its foal is nearby. Not the easiest of milk to acquire… The eighteenth-century demand, it seems, outstripped supply. No wonder patients struggled to find lactating asses and settled for unappealing substitutes!

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Inspired by the season, I started playing with my database of Hans Sloane’s correspondence to see how many items from The Twelve Days of Christmas to my wondering eyes should appear. Although some substitutions were required, all twelve days are represented—and, in turn, hint at the breadth of Sloane’s collections, medical practice and epistolary network.

Above, a partridge (perdix californica); below, a pigeon (columba cruenta). Engraving by Manceaux after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Above, a partridge (perdix californica); below, a pigeon (columba cruenta). Engraving by Manceaux after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… an account of the King hunting partridge from 8 in the morning until four in the afternoon in August 1724. It is unspecified whether any partridge was also in a pear tree. In a stunning twist for the song, George was also hunting rabbits and the trip had to be cut short because of a storm. Safety—and partridges—first, everyone. In any case, the King and his party were very tired after such a long day.

For the second day of Christmas, I found no turtle doves, but there are pigeons. And they are just as good, maybe even better, since I’ve never heard of anyone eating dove. Thomas Hearne, in an undated letter, reported that he was coughing up blood and receiving medical help from the Duchess of Bedford. All he was able to eat was milk and pigeon. Not my usual choice of dinner, but to each one’s own.

For the third day of Christmas, I was unable to locate any foreign hens. There was, however, an odd pheasant hen sent by John Hadley in 1721. He thought that Sloane might enjoy dissecting the hen because her feathers had changed several years previously from the usual hen colours to that of a cockerel.

I hoped to find collie birds (blackbirds) or calling birds (song birds) for the fourth day of Christmas—and I found several of each in one letter! In 1721, Richard Richardson sent Sloane the eggs and nests of several types of birds, including larks, thrushes, crows and blackbirds. Thank you, Mr. Richardson for being so obliging.

Gold ring with container, supposedly--but unlikely--held poison. Swiss; undated, possibly 16th or 17th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Gold ring with container, supposedly–but unlikely–held poison. Swiss; undated, possibly 16th or 17th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But what about five gold rings? I happily settled for one with a fancy, though indecipherable, inscription from Charles Preston in 1699. One ring to rule them all?

The geese, laying or otherwise, posed the greatest trouble. Goose does come up in the database, but only as a description. Mark Catesby in 1724 compared another bird specimen to a goose in size and Emelyn Tanner in 1727 described a deformed baby as having down like a goose.

The only swans mentioned in the letters are pubs, though the drinkers may or may not have been swimming in their drink. For example, Richard Richardson (1729) referred to a carrier from Preston who would be staying at the Swan in Lad Lane, London. Or Antony Picenini stayed at the Swan Tavern in Chelsea, hoping that a change of air would benefit him while he recovered from (unspecified) surgery on his thigh.

There were some maids mentioned in relation to milk, but only one maid doing any milking—in this case, drinking milk rather than fetching it. In 1725, Matthew Combe was treating Sophia Howe, Maid of Honour to Queen Caroline, for a bad cough. The patient had been drinking asses’ milk, commonly given to people suffering from chest troubles.

Akan drum owned by Sloane and acquired beyween 1710 and 1745. Made in West Africa and collected from Virginia. Credit: British Museum, London.

Akan drum owned by Sloane and acquired beyween 1710 and 1745. Made in West Africa and collected from Virginia. Credit: British Museum, London.

Although there were no drummers drumming, there is at least a drum. In 1729, Elizabeth Standish of Peterborough was planning to send Sloane “a Negro drum”. No other details were given, such as where the drum came from or how Mrs Standish had acquired it. Could this be the same Akan drum still held at the British Museum?

Travelling smoking set, Europe, 1815-1820. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Travelling smoking set, Europe, 1815-1820. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

There is only one reference to a piper actually piping. In 1723, Timothy Lovett reported that he had been treating his long-standing phlegmatic cough (forty years) by smoking a pipe: “I have used my selfe to smoking several years about 5 pipes a day but it is ready to make me short breathed. I find it opens and loosens ye body.” Smoking as a cure… it worked until it didn’t, apparently.

Now, the Lords and Ladies were apparently too dignified to mention their leaps and dances to Sloane, but the subject of their exercise does occasionally come up. I offer you one Lord, the Earl of Derby, and one Lady, Lady Clapham. Derby suffered from swelling and bad breathing in 1702. He was “most pusled what to do about exercise, which is so necessary, but the least causes my legs to swell so”. Lady Clapham was also ill in 1702 and her regular physician despaired of the elderly woman’s skin disorder, hard swellings all over her body. He wasn’t sure if “the cause of this disease may proceed from a great stomach & little exercise or a great surfeit of cherries in London”. Tough one…

St. Giles is in the background of Hogarth's "Noon", from Four Times of Day (1736).

St. Giles is in the background of Hogarth’s “Noon”, from Four Times of Day (1736).

Since I clumped Lords and Ladies together, I’ll end with an 1842 version of Twelve Days which has twelve bells ringing.  After Sloane was elected President of the Royal Society in 1727, the bell-ringers of St. Giles-in-the-Fields honoured him by ringing the bells. St. Giles only has eight bells today and, in 1727, would only have had four bells. But no matter, it’s the thought that counts and a four-bell honour is pretty darned fine!

And on that (ahem) note, I wish a Merry Christmas to all.

The Tale of Jane Wenham: an Eighteenth-century Hertfordshire Witch?

The Story

F. Goya, Three witches or Fates spinning, with bodies of babies tied behind them.  Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

F. Goya, Three witches or Fates spinning, with bodies of babies tied behind them.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The tale of Jane Wenham, found guilty of witchcraft in 1712, begins as all early modern witch stories do: with a suspicion.[1] A local farmer, John Chapman had long attributed the strange deaths of local cattle and horses to Wenham’s witchcraft, although he could not prove it. It was not until 1712 that he became sure of her guilt.

On New Year’s Day, Chapman’s servant, Matthew Gilston, was carrying straw outside the barn when Wenham appeared and asked for a pennyworth of straw. Gilston refused and Wenham left, saying “she’d take it”. As Gilston was threshing in the barn on 29 January, “an Old Woman in a Riding-hood or Cloak, he knows not which” asked for a pennyworth of straw. The old woman left muttering at his refusal and Matthew suddenly felt compelled to run to a farm three miles away, where he asked the farmers for some straw. Being refused, “he went farther to some Dung-heaps, and took some Straw from thence”, then took off his shirt and carried the straw home in it.

This was enough evidence for Chapman who “in Heat of Anger call’d [Wenham] a Witch and Bitch”. On 9 February, Wenham went to the local magistrate Sir Henry Chauncy for a warrant for slander, “expecting not only to get something out of [Chapman], but to deter other People from calling her so any more”. Now that the suspicion was in the open, Wenham could try to put the rumours to rest.

Chauncy, however, had “enquired after her Character, and heard a very ill one of her”. He referred the case to the local minister, Rev. Mr. Gardiner on 11 February, who advised them to live peaceably together and ordered Chapman to pay a shilling. Wenham thought this was inadequate; “her Anger was greatly kindled” against the minister and she swore that “if she could not have Justice here, she would have it elsewhere”.

Francis Bragge, another clergyman, stopped by just as Wenham was leaving. Within the hour, the Gardiners’ maidservant Anne Thorn, aged about 17, seemed to become the focus of Wenham’s wrath. The Gardiners and Bragge rushed into the kitchen when they heard a strange noise. There, Thorn was “stript to her Shirt-sleeves, howling, and wringing her Hands in a dismal Manner, and speechless”. She “pointed earnestly to a bundle which lay at her Feet”, which turned out to be oak twigs and leaves wrapped in her gown and apron.

Finally able to speak, Thorn said that “she found a strange Roaming in her Head, (I use her own Expressions,) her Mind run upon Jane Wenham, and she thought she must run some whither; that accordingly she ran up the Close, but look’d back several Times at the House, thinking she should never see it more”. Thorn claimed that she spoke to Wenham, then returned home–all within seven minutes, which meant that she had run over eight miles an hour. This was all the more impressive since she had injured her knee badly the night before. What might have been a wild fancy was verified by two witnesses: John Chapman and Daniel Chapman.

This was only the beginning of Thorn’s torments. The next day, Wenham asked why Thorn lied and warned her: “if you tell any more such Stories of me, it shall be worse for you than it has been yet, and shov’d her with her Hand”. And so she did suffer fron convulsions and pain, compulsions to collect more sticks or to submerge herself in the river, an ability to move quickly despite her injured knee, and a violent desire to draw the witch’s blood.

Wenham claimed that the Devil had come to her in the form of a cat. Here, Beelzebub - portrayed with rabbit ears, a tiger's face, scaled body, clawed fingers and bird's legs. From: Compendium rarissimum totius Artis Magicae sistematisatae per celeberrimos Artis hujus Magistros, 1775. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Wenham claimed that the Devil had come to her in the form of a cat. Here, Beelzebub – portrayed with rabbit ears, a tiger’s face, scaled body, clawed fingers and bird’s legs. (Compendium rarissimum totius Artis Magicae, 1775.) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Wenham was arrested for witchcraft on 13 February. Four women searched Wenham’s body for witch’s teats or other Devil’s marks, but none were found. A local minister, Mr. Strutt, tried to get her to say the Lord’s Prayer, which she could not do. On 16 February, in the presence of Wenham’s cousin, Strutt and Gardiner took Wenham’s confession. She admitted to bewitching Anne and to entering into a pact with the Devil sixteen years previously, just before her husband’s death.

The trial by jury began on 4 March, presided over by Sir John Powell. Several neighbours gave evidence, blaming the deaths of two bewitched infants and various cattle on her. Some mentioned strange visitations by noisy cats, including one with Wenham’s face. Many described Thorn’s continued convulsions, her pinch marks and bruises from invisible sources, and strange cakes of feathers in Thorn’s pillows. The judge was sceptical throughout. For example, he “wish’d he could see an Enchanted Feather; and seem’d to wonder that none of these strange Cakes were preserv’d”. The jury deliberated for two hours before finding Wenham guilty and sentencing her to death. Justice Powell, however, reversed the death sentence and later obtained a royal pardon for Wenham.

The Pamphlet War

F.Goya, The Sleep of Reason produces monsters.  Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

F.Goya, The Sleep of Reason produces monsters.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In April 1712, Francis Hutchinson wrote to Hans Sloane about the trial, which he had attended. The case was a cause célèbre in England, dividing the educated elite along the lines of rationalism and superstition. On the one side were clergymen such as Bragge, who wrote A full and impartial account of the discovery of sorcery and witchcraft, practis’d by Jane Wenham of Walkerne in Hertfordshire (1712). On the other side were those like Hutchinson, a curate of St. James’s Church in Bury St. Edmunds, who was troubled by the excess of superstition that he had witnessed. Although he shared “some historical Collections and Observations” with Sloane on the subject of witchcraft as early as 1712, it was not until 1718 that Hutchinson published An historical essay concerning witchcraft. Why the delay?

Janet Warner of the Walkern History Society suggests that Hutchinson may have been worried about damaging his own reputation, but I think that the clue is in Hutchinson’s foreword, which he addressed to Sir Peter King, the Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas, and Sir Thomas Bury, Lord Chief Baron of Exchequer. Hutchinson claimed that he would have continued his historical observations in obscurity “if a new Book [by Richard Boulton], which very likely may do some Mischief, had not lately come forth in Two Volumes, under the pompous Title of A Compleat History of Magick, Sorcery, and Witchcraft, &c.”

Hutchinson feared the public reaction to the book, which promoted the belief in magic and witches. As if people needed more encouragement: Bragge’s Full and impartial account, for example, had gone to four editons within the first month! Such beliefs were dangerous, and not just as a habit of thought, as the events in Walkern had shown. To Hutchinson, the clergymen involved in the Wenham case had behaved irresponsibly, being “as deep in these Notions, even as Hopkins [witchfinder] himself, that hang’d Witches by Dozens”. Instead of preventing superstition from spreading, as Hutchinson intended to do, they had taken a leading role in encouraging it.


It was obvious that Wenham could no longer remain in Walkern, given the town’s insistence that she was guilty. Captain John Plummer was described by Hutchinson as a “sensible man” for taking Wenham under his protection—“that she might not afterward be torn to peeces”. Wenham lived there “soberly and inoffensively” until 1720 when Plummer died. She lived another ten years under the care of William Cowper, the 1st Earl of Cowper, dying at the age of 90.[2]


[1] This account is taken from Francis Bragge, A full and impartial account of the discovery of sorcery and witchcraft, practis’d by Wenham Wenham of Walkerne in Hertfordshire, upon the Bodies of Anne Thorn, Anne Street, &c. (1712). (Yes, this is the same Francis Bragge who gave testimony in the case!)

[2] Both men were also correspondents of Hans Sloane’s.

Strange Pigs

There are strange pig tails in the midnight sun
From men who moil for hog’s stones
The science trails have their secret tales
That would make monstrous piglets groan;
The English nights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that marge on the note of Stephen Gray
Concerned with porcine impersonation.(1)

Pig tales occasionally show up in the Sloane Correspondence, and they are inevitably crackling good fun. But what do pigs have to do with the history of science? A while back, Samantha Sandassie (@medhistorian) wrote a fascinating post on the role of pigs in early modern medical history: besides providing a useful addition to one’s diet, pigs were often the subject of wondrous stories. By the eighteenth century, they were also the subject of Royal Society interests: classifying strange objects from animal bodies, understanding the development of fetal deformities, and analysing the composition of food stuffs.

John Morton, a naturalist who described fossils and wrote The Natural History of Northamptonshire, wrote to Hans Sloane about an extraordinary hog’s stone in April 1703. Morton thanked Sloane for his friendship and promised his service in return; this included sharing his work in progress on fossils. The description of the hog’s stone was, presumably, a taster for Sloane, but Morton also mentioned the possibility of sending it as a gift to the Royal Society. Sloane’s patronage was desirable, but even more so was attracting the interest of the Royal Society, and Morton was successful in both.

On the 30th of November 1703, Morton—nominated by Sloane’s rival, John Woodward—was accepted as a Fellow of the Royal Society. By June 1704, Morton had gifted the stone to the Royal Society after they had favourably received his account of it. A seemingly small offering, perhaps, but one that helped to establish a correspondence that continued for over a decade.

Sloane’s family members also sent him objects of interest. On Sloane’s birthday in 1711, his stepson-in-law John Fuller sent “a Couple of Monstrous Piggs, one of them was farrowed alive the other dead, the sow had six Piggs beside, all of them as they should be”. A quick perusal of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society reveals that monsters remained a source of fascination to the Society throughout the eighteenth century.

Disability and deformity were frequently explained in terms of the influence of maternal imagination: that the pregnant woman either had cravings or had been subjected to extreme emotions, either of which could shape an unborn child. (See, for example, Philip Wilson’s article on maternal imagination and disability.) Fuller’s piglets would have been especially intriguing, given that only two of the sow’s litter had been monstrous. What might the study of deformity in animals mean for the medical understanding of human reproduction? And why, moreover, were traits only passed on to some offspring? Food for thought: a fine gift, indeed, for Sloane!

But the strangest pig tale in the correspondence is from Stephen Gray, who was better known for his work on electricity than porcine expertise. Even so, in the summer of 1700, Sloane requested that Gray send further details about the fat of some pork that he had sent to the Royal Society. Gray denied all knowledge of the pork sample, insisting that either someone had the same name or was impersonating him. A fairly random occurrence that raises so many tantalizing questions: was there another Stephen Gray who was a pork expert? Was this a practical joke? And if so, was it intended for the Society or Gray? And what was its point? In any case, the Society clearly wanted to find out more about the chemical composition of pigs.

These three little pig gifts may seem like small tokens, but reflect the roles of patronage, reputation and curiosity in early eighteenth-century medical and scientific knowledge. Now, if only the joke or insult behind Gray’s impersonation could be deciphered: any thoughts?

[1] With apologies to Robert Service and my father, whose favourite poem is Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. I’d started this post in time for Father’s Day post, but was otherwise occupied at the time and unable to finish it.

Image: Eight pigs on a meadow near a wallow with a thatched barn in the background. After E. Crété after W. Kuhnert. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Shark Bits and Sloane Bobs

Sharktopus DVD cover. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Sharktopus DVD cover. Source: Wikipedia Commons, via Syfy.

It’s been an eventful couple months, which is why this blog has been a bit neglected. In case you’re wondering why: I had a baby in mid-June–a little earlier than expected!

The time has been passing in a blur of wonder and delight… and hilariously awful B-movies about sharks. Thank you to the Canadian Space channel for this maternity leave diversion. I’d just like to say that two Sharktopus death scenes were worth the price of my cable subscription for the month: the tentacle death tickle and a deadly pirouette.

The Sloane Project itself continues apace. I have been supervising a great team of Research Assistants this summer. (You can read a bit about them here.) We’ve been doing a lot of behind the scenes work on the Sir Hans Sloane’s Correspondence Online database. Some of the RAs have also been preparing some blog posts that will appear over the next couple months, starting next week.

Sadly, we have not come across any references to sharks in the Sloane Letters so far.

Bethlem Bed Shortages in the Eighteenth Century

I just read an excellent post by Jennifer Evans (@historianjen) over at earlymodernmedicine on a sad case of madness from Hans Sloane’s correspondence. Go read the post in full, but to sum it up: over several months in 1714, the Earl of Derby was attempting to care for John Getting, who was in clearly declining mental health. The Earl wondered about the possibility of committing Getting to Bethlem, as the case had become too difficult to manage. Although the outcome can’t be traced, Evans wonders if Getting was admitted to Bethlem Hospital (also known as Bethlehem or Bedlam).

Maybe. Getting doesn’t appear in the letters again–but being admitted to Bethlem was not easy, nor did it provide long-term care.

We regularly complain about hospital bed shortages, but the situation was even more complicated in the eighteenth century! Mental health care primarily occurred in the home, although Bethlem Hospital and private care were an option for more difficult cases. There were few charitable hospitals overall and a chronic shortage of space. The early eighteenth-century Bethlem, for example, had only just over 100 places.[1] (The population of London in 1715 was around 630,000, but to make matters more complicated, Bethlem patients like Getting might come from outside of London.)

The Hospital of Bethlem [Bedlam] at Moorfields, London: seen from the south, with three people in the foreground. Etching by J. T. Smith after himself, 1814. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Hospital of Bethlem [Bedlam] at Moorfields, London: seen from the south, with three people in the foreground. Etching by J. T. Smith after himself, 1814. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Bethlem was able to remain a charitable hospital largely through its fundraising: it doubled as a tourist attraction for rich and poor alike, with visitors expected to leave donations. Frenchman Cesar de Saussure, for example, described his tour of Bethlem. On the first floor, visitors could look in the little windows of cells at “these poor creatures” or, in the big gallery, pass by the “many inoffensive madmen” allowed to walk around. Cells on the second floor held “dangerous maniacs, most of them being chained and terrible to behold”. The building may have been grand, but it was a “melancholy abode”.

Patients being assessed could stay at Bethlem, but that did not always result in admission, as this fascinating case from Bethlem Blog suggests. Admission into most early eighteenth-century English hospitals was granted through patronage or—in the case of the Foundling Hospital (founded 1741)—by lottery. As a physician for Christ’s Hospital (1694-1730) and on the Board of Governors for St. Bartholomew’s, Sloane was frequently asked for assistance in obtaining admission for patients. But as the post on Getting reveals, admission to Bethlem could be helped by a charitable donation—and, perhaps, the assistance of important patrons like Sloane and Derby.

Another case from the Sloane correspondence, however, suggests the difficulty of finding long-term care for those in dire need. Ambrose Godfrey, a chemist well-known to Sloane for his analysis of the properties of stones and waters, wrote a distressed letter to Sloane in July 1724 on behalf of Mr. Steiger (an engraver).

Godfrey had known Mrs. Steiger and her brother well for nearly forty years, but the brother “had lost his understanding” and the family hoped to have him admitted to Bethlem. The Bethlem physician, however, “refuses it, alledging that there is no roome”. Godfrey hoped that a letter from Sloane might help. The situation was, indeed, dire.

He has been already been ones before in Bedlem & was sent out as cured. But being now as bad as ever & Threatning to stab them, haveing done already very dangerous things, it would be great charity good S’r if you could be instrumentall to get him in again, the dangerous prancks he has played will else be the ruin of my friend who has already the Burthen & care of 3 of this mad mans children upon his back.

It’s clear that in helping the Steiger family, Godfrey was asking Sloane for a very personal favour: “I am deeply concerned for them”, he wrote, and “it would be as much satisfaction to me see their request fulefilled, as if they ware relations of my own”. In the event that personal recommendation was insufficient, Godfrey also pointed out the brother’s good reputation. He had “ben a man of much credit & served all the offices in ye parish of Gracion’s street”.

Statues of "raving" and "melancholy" madness, each reclining on one half of a broken segmental pediment, formerly crowning the gates at Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital. Engraving by C. Warren, 1808, after C. Cibber, 1680. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Statues of “raving” and “melancholy” madness, each reclining on one half of a broken segmental pediment, formerly crowning the gates at Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital. Engraving by C. Warren, 1808, after C. Cibber, 1680. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

So why the stickiness over admissions and the insistence in discharging an obviously ill patient? A charitable hospital like Bethlem needed to show that it was successful in curing people in order to attract patronage. To that end, according to Bethlem Blog, those patients accepted into Bethlem were most likely to be easily treatable within a year or two. It was not until the late 1720s that Bethlem opened an “incurable” ward—and that was only available to patients already in the hospital. After a year of treatment and assessment, severely ill patients might be transferred to the ward.

Might. The waiting list to enter the ward was long.

It’s hard to say what happened to either Getting or Mrs. Steiger’s brother, but their sad cases predated the incurable ward. At best, if the men were admitted to Bethlem, the Steiger family and Earl of Derby might have had a couple years respite; in the brother’s case, this might even have coincided with the opening of the new ward. At worst? Well, the Earl had the inclination, money and assistance to continue helping Getting. As for the Steiger family, however, I dread to think. Mrs Steiger’s brother was a danger to the family: the costs of caregiving for a family could be high, indeed.

[1] Christine Stevenson, “Robert Hooke’s Bethlem”, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 55, 3 (1996): 254–275.

Looking after your family until the end: the cost of caregiving in historical perspective

A very old man, suffering from senility. Colour stipple engraving by W. Bromley, 1799, after T. Stothard. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A very old man, suffering from senility. Colour stipple engraving by W. Bromley, 1799, after T. Stothard. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Another day, another governmental exhortation that families just aren’t doing enough to keep society going… This time, it is Simon Hughes (the UK coalition’s justice minister) who suggested that British people had lost a sense of duty to care and were neglecting the elderly. Caregivers regularly bear the brunt of governmental disparagement, especially at a time when an ageing population puts increasing stress on limited resources. The solution, Hughes proposes, is that we look to immigrant cultures who understand the necessity of sacrifice for the good of elderly family members.

Gee, that’ll do the trick… (There’s a thorough dissection of Hughes’ statements  over at (Dementia Just Ain’t) Sexy.) But what I want to discuss here is the problematic view of the past underpinning Hughes’ assertions. He ignores the daily experience of modern caregivers and instead assumes that British family responsibility was much more important back in the halcyon olden days.

Let me introduce you to the Meure family in the early eighteenth century, whose case suggests the high costs of caregiving at a time when there were no other options. The Meures were naturalized Huguenot immigrants who had moved to London shortly after Louix XIV had revoked the Edict of Nantes in France. The family’s immigrant status is worth noting, given that the myth of dutiful families relies on the belief that they remained in one place.

The location of the French Academy, where a different sort of dancing now takes place. Image source: my own photograph.

The location of the French Academy, where a different sort of dancing now takes place. Image source: my own photograph.

Abraham Meure (senior, hereafter “Meure”) established a boarding school for French Protestants in Soho, but the school—which taught fencing, dancing, drawing and languages—quickly attracted of the English nobility. Times must have been good for the family, as Abraham Meure (junior, hereafter “Abraham”) styled himself as “Gent.” when he married Elizabeth Newdigate in 1707.

Somewhere around 1708, Meure’s son-in-law Moses Pujolas wrote to Hans Sloane. Sloane had previously acted as a legal witness on behalf of Meure who suffered from dementia and senility. The father’s need for care was not disputed within the family; rather, this was a matter of ensuring that Abraham could take over his father’s interests. Unsatisfied with the facts of the case, the jury at the Court of Chancery wanted Meure to attend court. Moses worried that ‘he isn’t in a fit state to conduct himself without embarrassment’ and hoped that Sloane would attest to treating Meure’s senility over time.[1] The family appears to have been protecting Meure by preserving his dignity. The Court treated the debility as temporary, but then removing Meure’s power irrevocably wasn’t the family’s goal, either. The Meures delayed three more years before seeking a permanent ruling.

Meure’s last will dates from 1703 and was proven in 1716.[2] Although it’s hard to know when exactly Meure’s dementia began, the will makes it clear that his daughter Magdalene Pujolas and her family were living with him. According to the will, Abraham received the bulk of his father’s estate, but was to pay Moses £500 as specified in the marriage articles and, within six months of Meure’s death, Magdalene would receive a further £500. Meure declared:

Further, I give my daughter Magdalen Pujolas her board for all the time she lived with me since her marriage, and for three months after my decease, as alsoe the Board of her Husband Moses Pujolas his Children, and servants, and I doe prohibite my Eldest son or his Executors ever to make any demand thereon upon any amount whatever.

In addition, Moses could take back everything in his two furnished chambers and any Pujolas possessions elsewhere in the household. There were bequests to other family members: Robert Pujolas (Magdalene’s son), £500; Andrew Meure (son), £450; and Magdalin Meure (Andrew’s daughter), £100. The particularly generous bequests to the Pujolas family hints that Meure expected them to remain with him indefinitely and that they may already have been providing him with domestic assistance. The Meure family was not wealthy, although the school provided a sufficiently comfortable living to remunerate the Pujolas family for their long-term assistance.

The evidence is, admittedly, patchy. No family records or other letters to Sloane refer to Meure’s deteriorating state, though Moses’ reference to Meure’s likely embarrassment in court suggests that he was in a bad state a mere five years after writing the will. It must have been agonizing for those closest to him who continued to care for him until his death circa 1714, which was when Abraham took over as ratepayer for the property.

Moses and Abraham for many years had a friendly relationship. For example, Moses was Abraham’s guarantor in his marriage settlement of 1707. Not long after Meure died, there were growing tensions within the family. And it is these letters that suggest what the real cost of long-term caregiving was for Magdalene.

In 1719, Abraham wrote to Sloane to question Moses’ treatment of his sister:

I beg the favour of you to lett me know when you saw my sister Pujolas last, and how you found her, her husband saith that he locked her up by your advice.

Sloane replied that he had not treated Mrs Pujolas for several years, but had looked into the matter for Abraham. Magdalene had, apparently, ruined her health, by ‘coveting and drinking large quantities of hott liquors’.

The case must have been severe. Sloane was concerned enough to advise Moses to consult a lawyer about locking Magdalene up in order to limit the quantities of alcohol that she consumed.


[1] British Library, Sloane MS 4060, ff. 142-3. Pujolas thanked Sloane for an affidavit in BL MS 4060, f. 141,

[2] London Metropolitan Archives, PROB 11: Will Registers – 1713-1722 – piece 554: Fox, Quire Numbers 173-208 (1716), Will of Abraham Meure.

The Sir Hans Sloane Birthday Collection: Giants’ Shoulders #70

Sir Hans Sloane, collector and physician, was born on 16 April 1660. To celebrate his 354th birthday, I’m hosting the history of science carnival: Giants’ Shoulders #70. Sloane collected stuff of all kinds, from curiosities (natural and man-made) and botanical samples to manuscripts. He was very thorough… So what does one give the man who had (nearly) everything for his birthday? The gift of knowledge! Hosting Giants’ Shoulders follows–in a small way—in the footsteps of Sloane, who edited the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society for two decades.

Newspaper recipes pasted into a manuscript recipe book. Wellcome, WMS 7366, p. 78. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Newspaper recipes pasted into a manuscript recipe book.
Wellcome, WMS 7366, p. 78. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Being a physician was central to Sloane’s identity, so it’s fitting to start off with a round-up of history of medicine links. I must, of course, include a painful seventeenth-century medical case: that of “Samuel’s Stone-induced suffering”. Sloane, like many other eighteenth-century physicians, was no stranger to proprietary remedies; he even had his own special eye remedy. This month, we have “Proprietary Panaceas and Not-So-Secret Recipes”, “Newspaper Remedies and Commercial Medicine in Eighteenth-Century Recipe Books” and “The Business of Medicine”. Sloane was particularly interested in finding useful remedies and would, no doubt, have approved of our modern interest in reviving old treatments or exploring non-Western ones (“Under the Influence”). He was equally intrigued by indigenous knowledge (as was “A Pirate Surgeon in Panama) and older popular treatments (as was Thomas Scattergood in the early nineteenth century, here and here).

As President of the Royal College of Physicians from 1719, Sloane also would have been familiar with medical disputes and prosecutions against irregular practitioners, such as “Master Docturdo and Fartado: Libellous Doctors in Early Modern Britain”. A post on “The Return of Nicholas Culpeper” finds the traces of Culpeper’s career around London. I’ve often wondered whether Sloane would simply have seen Culpeper as an irregular practitioner, or appreciated what they had in common–botanical interests and willingness to treat the poor.

Photograph of a telescope that belonged to Caroline Herschel. Image Credit: Geni, 2008, Wikimedia Commons.

Photograph of a telescope that belonged to Caroline Herschel. Image Credit: Geni, 2008, Wikimedia Commons.

A driving factor in Sloane’s career was his insatiable curiosity. A teacher tells us why the history of science “is essential to engage students”, while “Hydra meets Handel” shows children participating in early modern science by gathering “duck pond detritus”. Sloane also encouraged curiosity in others, including women; for only two examples, he exchanged letters and botanical samples with the Duchess of Beaufort and Cassandra Willughby. There were lots of early modern women who practiced science—and this month, there were posts on Margaret Cavendish, Emilie du Chatelet and Caroline Herschel. Women could also be important patrons of science, such as Angela Burdett-Coutts. (Sloane certainly benefited from the patronage of women early in his medical career, particularly that of the Duchess of Albemarle.)

In his botanical research, Sloane catalogued and classified his specimens. Language was increasingly important in describing experiments and specimens, and was being developed and refined out of necessity. Robert Hooke, for example, coined sixty-eight words including (my favourites) “splatch” and “punk”. Over at Evolving Thoughts, a series on speciation outlines the origins of “speciation”, Linneaus’ contribution and late eighteenth-century developments. There are lots of posts this month about curiosities that might have appealed to Sloane, which I’ve divided into man-made and beautiful objects. Under man-made (and sometimes horrifying) objects, we have Holler’s copper plate, Dead Men’s Teeth (a.k.a. dentures), a Time-Traveling, Vote-Gathering Miraculous Acousticon, Brunel’s Atmospheric Railway and the plutonium box. Under beautiful objects, we have the Salagrama Stones, the Vessels of Hermes, a triangular book about alchemy, Nathaniel Wallich’s specimens, and a colourful atlas.

T. Rowlandson, 1787. A fashionable dentist's practice: healthy teeth are being extracted from poor children to create dentures for the wealthy. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

T. Rowlandson, 1787. A fashionable dentist’s practice: healthy teeth are being extracted from poor children to create dentures for the wealthy. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

One of the reasons that Sloane was so well-known for his botanical expertise is that he had actually travelled to Jamaica early in his career, gathered local knowledge and tried out local remedies. On behalf of the Royal Society, he also requested that some explorers bring back specific items or look into particular issues. In 1700, Edmond Halley returned to St. Helena and reported on the area. Halley’s travel descriptions weren’t intended for the Royal Society, but his travels would certainly have been of interest. Explorers have also been the mappers of new and old areas. There is a series of posts on “A Concise History of Geological Maps”, which highlights the many uses of mapping beyond the geographical (2, 3 and 4). The newest areas are sometimes very far away, such as Martian canals or the centre of the Earth. Getting to some places might have been impossible in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though astronomical photography might help to span the distance. But in the end, the question remains: we can take humans out of their usual lands, but can we take the terrestriality out of the humans?

Experimentation, itself a way of exploring the universe, became increasingly important from the early eighteenth century. This month, I read about Isaac Newton’s experiments as instances of special power, the most famous failed science experiment, the lack of religious barriers to the practice of early modern science, experimental self-asphyxiation and experimental embryology in China. The secrets of the universe, however, are often invisible to the naked eye—perhaps more so than early eighteenth-century people even would have guessed. What about trying to study “the unfashionable ether”, magnetism and light rays, quantum physics… or medieval multiverses and modern cosmic conundrums? And that’s before we even get to time! Sloane would have been familiar with the attempts to measure time and longitude, but less so the pervasiveness of modern standardised time, the ancient methods of measuring the movements of the sun or a twentieth-century physicist’s obsession with time and existence.

Sloane would have been no stranger to scientific disputes (especially since he sometimes played mediator). Recently, there has been much lively discussion among historians of scientists about the T.V. series Cosmos. By and large, historians of science have been highly critical of the choices made: the focus on Giordano Bruno, the inaccuracies in the story of Bruno, frustrating omissions and outright misrepresentations. Other historians were a bit more sympathetic, with suggestions that historians of science need to tell more compelling stories and that we need to provide better alternatives to the Cosmos style of history.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565. Source: Wikimedia Commons, from Kunsthistoriches Museum.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565. Source: Wikimedia Commons, from Kunsthistoriches Museum.

To end the Sloane birthday edition, I offer some book reviews. Sloane, of course, was constantly adding to his library, as do most historians. You might be interested in acquiring Everyday Renaissance Astrology, The Book of Trees, Ice Time (especially for those of us suffering from this never-ending winter in North America), or Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age.

Happy reading! See you next month over at The Renaissance Mathematicus, where Thony Christie will be hosting Giants’ Shoulders #71. His contact details are here, if you want to start sending in nominations for May.

The Problems of an Eighteenth-Century Menagerie

One of my favourite letters in the Sloane Correspondence is a complaint from Charles Lennox, the 2nd Duke of Richmond (ca. 1729-1733).


I received your letter I am obliged to you
for it. I wish indeed it had been the sloath that
had been sent me, for that is the most curious
animal I know; butt this is nothing butt a
comon young black bear, which I do not know what
to do with, for I have five of them already. so pray
when you write to him, I beg you would tell
him not to send me any Bears, Eagles, Leopards,
or Tygers, for I am overstock’d with them already.

I am Dear Sir,
Your Faithfull
humble servant

(BL Sloane 4078, f. 66, undated)

Nineteenth-century picture of a three-toed sloth climbing up a rope.

A three-toed sloth or ai (Bradypus tridactylus). Etching by J(?) L., 1825. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Richmond established a well-known menagerie at Goodwood House, Sussex–though it was less famous than his son’s, which included more than one funny-looking Canadian moose. (If you’re interested in the Richmond family’s moose, as immortalized by artist George Stubbs, see Lisa Vargo’s article!)

The Richmond menagerie was by no means unique in Georgian England; the ability to import creatures from across the world expanded rapidly alongside British imperial ambition. Most famous, of course, was the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London, which had been around since the thirteenth century and lasted until the 1830s. But across the country, aristocrats kept a wide array of exotic birds and animals by the eighteenth century. For the wealthy, such animal collections revealed their wealth, imperial connections and interests in natural history.

Hans Sloane himself collected living (and dead animals) while he lived in Bloomsbury, as Arnold Hunt reveals over at Untold Lives. As early as 1697, Sloane’s animals were attracting attention. Edward Tyson wrote to Sloane in February after hearing that Sloane’s possum had died. Tyson planned to dissect the animal the next day and wondered if Sloane would join him. In particular, he hoped that Sloane would do some research into what authors had written about possum anatomy. That Sloane’s collection was as likely to include weird pigs and cats as exotic beasts, suggests that his primary interest was to understand and to classify the natural world.

The fascination with strange beasts extended throughout society,  with touring menageries able to attract large audiences. In Man and the Natural World (1983), Keith Thomas recounts a sad case of an elephant that died in 1720 after being exhibited in London, likely made ill by the spectators giving the elephant too much ale to drink. The keepers of travelling menageries, no doubt, were primarily driven by profit. The public interest in the menageries highlights both people’s desire to be entertained and a real curiosity in the natural world beyond Britain.

Image of a sloth holding on to a tree.

Three-toed-sloth (Bradypus variegatus), Lake Gatun, Republic of Panama. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Stefen Laube.

What of the Duke of Richmond’s motivations for establishing a menagerie, then? The Duke of Richmond’s letter tells us that he was a discerning collector. After acquiring a basic range of powerful creatures that represented the many parts of the globe, Richmond now wanted the more unusual animals. A sloth, for example, would be ideal, being “the most curious creature I know”.  Curiosity was clearly a driving factor for him.

The letter leaves me to wonder what the Duke did with his surplus bears (…and eagles, leopards and tigers), especially given the recent culls at Copenhagen Zoo. Richmond’s description of being “overstock’d” might actually indicate that he kept the animals around. His collection, then, was also about acquisition: six bears might be a bit much, but some duplication was no bad thing. Despite his disappointment in Bear No. 6, the Duke may also have had affection for his unusual pets—shortly before his own death, he had a beloved lioness commemorated in statue-form!

Collecting animals was not an easy task. A collector might have money and connections, as Richmond did, but that didn’t guarantee that the most-desired animals would arrive. For the Duke’s sake, I hope that the mysterious “he” mentioned in the letter did manage to send back a sloth—because, really, who wouldn’t be charmed by this smiley fellow (or 200 of them)?

This summer, Goodwood House will be holding an exhibition on the Richmond family’s natural history collections.