Category: Early Modern History

A Peculiar Postscript

Eighteenth-century letters generally contain an excess of politeness, even when one correspondent rebuked another. But every now and then, letter recipients must have been left scratching their heads—and not because of head lice…

In 1732, the Dowager Countess of Ferrers wrote to Mrs Hinde, asking her to take the letter along with payment to Sir Hans Sloane for advice on an eye problem. The letter begins with an apology for not writing to Mr Hinde. This the Countess blamed on her eye trouble, which “render’d it [writing] so uneasy to me that I now never attempt it but when forced by Business of necessity”. The Countess then found the energy to write a lengthy letter (about 1200 words) on her eye problem. Well then, that put the Hindes in their place: she was only writing because she wanted something.

Of course, there was an obvious status difference between writer and recipient here. The rules for polite behaviour that were so integral to the Republic of Letters (or when a lower-ranking person wrote to a higher-ranking recipient) did not apply when the letter writer was the social superior. The Hindes probably thought nothing of this particular comment.

But still, the real charm clincher comes in the postscript.

I am glad yr young baby and misses have so much Health & strength & gives so much entertainment to ye whole Family, I cannot say that I ever could give into ye amusement of being able to divert my self with little Children but I have often envy’d those that found pleasure in them & therefore give Mrs Hinde Joy upon that occasion.

Two mothers with crying babies and one in a walking frame; comparing the human infant's helplessness with the self-sufficiency of newborn animals. Engraving by P. Galle, c. 1563. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Two mothers with crying babies and one in a walking frame; comparing the human infant’s helplessness with the self-sufficiency of newborn animals. Engraving by P. Galle, c. 1563. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Righto. And this is what I hear it as:

Congratulations on the birth of your baby, if that’s what makes you happy. I hate small kids. And I’m sorry not sorry that I never liked them.

Anyway, social status notwithstanding, the Countess’ somewhat peculiar (if unintentionally hilarious) postscript surely must have left the Hindes wondering how long they could reasonably wait before passing on the letter to Sloane. And given that the Countess had sent the letter from France, there could have been any number of possible reasons for a delay.

On Tooth Worms

St. Apollonia, patron saint of tooth pain. Francisco de Zurbaran, 1636.

St. Apollonia, patron saint of tooth pain. Francisco de Zurbaran, 1636.

The 9th of February is St. Apollonia’s Day and, in the U.S., National Toothache Day. So I offer you tooth-worms, which–as Nicolas Andry described them in An account of the breeding of worms in human bodies (1701)—“occasion a deaf Pain mix’d with an itching in the teeth; they insensibly consume the Teeth, and cause a hideous Stink” (85). On 3 July 1700, John Chamberlayne wrote to Hans Sloane on the matter of his own tooth worms.

Now, these men were not people with particularly weird ideas, even for the time. Rather, the idea that toothaches were caused by worms had been around for a very long time. For a good overview of this verminous history, you should read Lindsey Fitzharris’ post on “The Battle of the Tooth Worm”.

This idea was still widely held in the late seventeenth century, even by the intellectual elite. For example, at a Royal Society meeting on 18 July 1678, Robert Hooke compared a growth within a tree trunk to tooth rot. At this point, Society members digressed into discussions of worms causing rot and the removal of tooth worms. In one case, a woman extracted the worms with a sharpened quill; in other cases, “the same thing was done by the help of the fumes of henbane seeds taken into the mouth; whereby the saliva falling into a basin of water held underneath, would discover several living worms, supposed to issue either from the gums or teeth”.[1]

Old knowledge could even, seemingly, be supported by investigations using new technologies. In a letter published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1684, Anton van Leewenhoek described his microscopical observations “about Animals in the Scurf of the Teeth”. Leeuwenhoek started with his own teeth, “kept usually clean”. He examined other samples of tooth plaque from two women, an eight-year old and two old men.Using his microscope, he discovered several sorts of creatures, some like worms, in the plaque—so many that “they exceed the number of Men in a kingdom”. These creatures, though, were present in sound, healthy teeth. Could these be tooth worms?

Leeuwenhoek was not so convinced by 1700 when two of his letters “concerning Worms Pretended to be Taken from the Teeth” was published in the Phil. Trans. He had examined two worms “taken out of a corrupt Tooth by smoaking”, one of which was still alive after four days in the post (sent on 4 July 1700). Leeuwenhoek believed it came from the egg of a type of fly that laid their eggs in cheese. He rounded up more worms from his local friendly cheesemonger and ran several experiments (including watching the worms copulate).

As to how the worms ended up in the teeth… Teeth—or, flesh more specifically—were not the worms’ natural habitat. The flies took nine days to mature, but meat needed to be salted or smoked sooner. Leeuwenhoek instead believed that the worm specimens had come from a patient who

had some time before eaten Cheese laden with young Worms, or Eggs of the above-mention’d Flies, and that these Worms or Eggs were not touch’d or injur’d in the chewing of the Cheese, but stuck in the hollow Teeth.

Gnawing worms had caused the tooth pain. Or did they?

For his work on bodily worms, Andry had also examined some worms “that a Tooth-Drawer took off of a Lady’s Teeth in cleaning them”. Based on this case, Andry concluded that tooth worms rotted the teeth, but did not cause any pain. These small, long and slender worms with round black heads bred “under a Crust that covers the Surface of the Teeth when they’re disorder’d” (38).

To the modern reader, Leeuwenhoek’s argument is more sensible. Sure, there might be microscopic creatures living on the teeth, but they were not the same as the so-called tooth worms… which were really more cheese worms than anything. But at the time, Andry’s version would have been compelling. Worms were thought to breed in unclean conditions and, as Andry made clear, they could breed under a crust on an unhealthy tooth: it was the disorder in the tooth, not the worm, that caused the pain.

James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

When John Chamberlayne, Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote to Sloane about his own tooth-worms, he did so in the interest of advancing knowledge and reporting on an efficacious treatment. He did not ask for Sloane’s advice, but instead reported on his visit to Mr. Upton, known for his “tooth-candling” expertise. Using heat and smoke, Upton removed rheum from Chamberlayne’s gums and extracted ten or twelve worms. This was apparently on the low side, since Upton on a really good day could remove sixty worms.

Chamberlayne claimed that he ordinarily had no faith in men such as Upton (meaning: irregular practitioners, sometimes known as quacks), but many gentlemen of his acquaintance had attested to the success of Upton’s treatment. Of course, given that Chamberlayne also described his teeth as “loose and corrupted”, he may also have been willing to try anything for what must have been terrible pain!

Chamberlayne was familiar with the wider discussions about bodily worms, referring, for example, to Leeuwenhoek’s 1684 article in the Phil. Trans. Besides the report, Chamberlayne may have taken a chance to do his bit for knowledge in another way: he may have sent Sloane some tooth worms. Is it just coincidence that Chamberlayne’s letter to Sloane was dated 3 July 1700 and that Leeuwenhoek referred to worm specimens sent on 4 July 1700?

Whatever the case, one moral of the story is: choose your cheese wisely if you have bad teeth.

[1] Thomas Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London, vol. 3 (1757): 428.

Measles in History

The terror of smallpox lives on in popular memory, but measles are often dismissed by many as just a childhood disease: How much harm could it really cause? And aren’t childhood diseases useful for breaking in immune systems anyhow? We overlook measles at our peril, as recent outbreaks, such as the Disneyland one, have shown. It only takes one sick person for the disease to spread rapidly among those who can’t be vaccinated (such as babies), those whose vaccines are incomplete or unsuccessful, and those who opted out of vaccination.

But is measles really comparable to smallpox, or am I being a bit extreme? Well, in early modern Europe, measles—more specifically, its complications–was considered as deadly as smallpox.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In 1730, physician Thomas Fuller published Exanthematologia: Or, An Attempt to Give a Rational Account of Eruptive Fevers, especially of the Measles and Small Pox. Fuller addressed it to Sir Hans Sloane and the Royal College of Physicians. In part, this was a strategy to situate the book as part of the reformed and rationale medicine that Sloane championed as the College’s President.

But it would have appealed to Sloane who had promoted smallpox inoculation and had a longstanding interest in fevers. Not only did he help to popularise the use of Peruvian bark for treating fevers, regularly using it in his own practice, but he took an interest in the publication of Edward Strother’s Criticon Febrium: or, a critical essay on fevers in 1716 (Preface). Strother, perhaps not coincidentally, was also a fan of Peruvian bark (48).

Fuller classified and described the various types of fevers with rashes or pustules, concluding that the most dangerous were smallpox and measles. Although the two diseases were very different, they had something crucial in common, being contagions that could be spread through one’s breath or skin pores (93). These “venemous fevers” were produced by a venom that was mild, unless over-heated—then the fevers became “more killing than even the Plague itself” (119).

Measles, even in its most benign state, is a miserable experience. The symptoms include: coldness and shivering; yawning; queasiness and vomiting; anguish; headache and backache; quick and weak pulse; great heat and thirst; short, painful breathing and oppession of the breast; hypochondriac tension and pale urine; watchfulness and drowsiness; convulsions; weakness and heaviness; redness, swelling, and pricking of eyes, lids and brows; involuntary tears and sneezing; sore throat, hoarseness, runny nose, and perpetual cough (142).

Fuller noted that not only did the cough always come before the measles, but that the pain in one’s chest and shortness of breath were much worse in measles than smallpox (147-8). Measles could also become malignant, or as we’d call it today, develop complications. The fever would last longer than four days and the spots would erupt much more slowly. Worse yet, diarrhea and peripneumonia occurring afterwards could prove fatal (149-150). At this point, Fuller included excerpts from Thomas Sydenham’s observations of measles outbreaks during the 1670s (151-7).

Death carries off a child on his back. Etching by Stefano De Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Death carries off a child on his back. Etching by Stefano Della Bella, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It is Sydenham’s references to the personal devastation from the illness that caught my attention. In 1670, measles “seiz’d chiefly on Children; but spar’d none in any House they enter’d into” (151). By day 8, the spots cleared up, as was typical, but that is when the cough set in: “we are to observe, that at this Time the Fever, and Difficulty of Breathing are increased; and the Cough grown so cruelly troublesome, as to hinder Sleep Day and Night”. The cause of the children’s terrible coughs, Sydenham suggested, was poor management of the disease; they had “been kept too hot, and have taken hot Medicines, to drive, or keep out the Measles” (153). As we know now, complications are more likely to happen in people who have chronic conditions, the very young or elderly, and the malnourished.

So, how did Sydenham and Fuller treat measles? With “much the same Method of Cure with the Small-pox”. Not surprising, given that they were both classed as venomous diseases. Above all, “hot medicines and regimen are extreamly pernicious”. The patient should “eat no flesh”, only water-gruel, barley-broth and roasted apples (sometimes). To drink, the patient was allowed small beer or watered down milk. The patient was to remain in bed for two to three days during the eruption, so the morbose particles would leave through the skin (155-6).

The cough should be treated with a pectoral decoction, linctus and diacodium (poppy syrup): “Very rarely, if ever, will any one that useth this Method die”. If the cough continued, it could “bring great Danger”. Bleeding was the clear choice in that case. “I have (with great Success)”, Sydenham promised, “order’d even the youngest Infants to be let Blood in the Arm; and where the Case requir’d it, I have not fear’d to repeat the same.” This rescued “truly many Children that have been at Death’s Door”. As a bonus, bleeding treated the diarrhea by ridding the body of sharp humours (156-7).

No wonder measles was so feared, with Sydenham declaring that the pneumonia “is so fatal commonly after the Measles, that it may well be reckon’d the chief Minister of Death, destroying more than even the Small-Pox itself” (157). They didn’t know yet about the potential for brain damage or deafness! In the West, we’ve forgotten the real horror of epidemic diseases that killed children.

For some other historical discussions of measles, see The Wellcome Trust Blog on the development of vaccination programmes and Historiann on the early eighteenth-century treatments proposed by Cotton Mather.

A Most Dangerous Rivalry

By James Hawkes

The Royal Society is in turmoil as competing factions battle for control. Not only is our hero Hans Sloane’s job on the line, but the very existence of the Royal Society hangs in the balance…

 Dr. John Woodward (Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Dcoetzee)

Dr. John Woodward (Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Dcoetzee)

No this is not the TV Guide summary of a niche costume drama, but the results of a bitter dispute between Dr. Hans Sloane and Dr. John Woodward in 1710. Not only did these men have starkly different visions for the future of the Royal Society, but they were competitors for rare curiosities and specimens. It’s perhaps not surprising that the men became rivals! Woodward launched a concerted campaign to unseat Sloane, which nearly succeeded.

Woodward, professor of Physic at Gresham College, championed a highly empirical and experimental approach for the Royal Society. He resented Sloane’s tendency to publish an increasingly ‘miscellaneous’ assortment of articles in  the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions–particularly those written by Sloane’s friends. (This was, admittedly, a complaint even by men who liked Sloane!) Woodward naturally considered the man most disadvantaged by this unjust state of affairs to be himself.  He made it his mission to save the Royal Society from those he feared would undermine the scientific progress of mankind.

Sloane and Woodward actually had much in common: they were both medical doctors with a deep-seated curiosity about the natural world. They were also active in the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians. Both earned considerable respect for their scholarly endeavours: Sloane, for his botanical work on the West Indies, and Woodward, for his prolific writings, especially on geology. Each man had a circle of scientific contacts across the British Empire and the Continent.

Sloane and Woodward also built impressive collections of natural and antiquarian items, preserved for posterity by (respectively) the British Museum and the Woodward Professorship at Cambridge. Woodward is even on record in a letter to Sloane declaring that he thought himself Sloane’s friend… albeit in the context of trying to explain away intemperate remarks about Sloane.

But the Devil is always in the details. Sloane had a reputation for collecting pretty much anything that fell into his hands. Woodward, however, focused on what he thought to be academically useful. These different approaches helped Woodward to drive a  wedge between Sloane and Sir Isaac Newton (then President of the Royal Society), who had little respect for Sloane’s collecting habits.

The situation finally exploded in 1709 when Sloane, as First Secretary of the Royal Society,  published a book review by Woodward’s long-standing enemy Edward Lhwyd. In his review of the work of a Swiss geologist, Lhwyd went out of his way to ridicule Woodward’s theories. Woodward demanded satisfaction. One contemporary said he did not know if the affair would end

whether by the sword or by the pen. If the former, Dr. Mead has promised to be Dr. Sloane’s second.(Levine)

A distinct possibility for resolving the conflict. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Uploaded by Noodleki

One conflict resolution option. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Noodleki.

Dr. Mead was, of course, another one of the many enemies that Woodward was so good at making. Indeed, ten years later Mead and Woodward duelled to resolve a dispute on the best way to treat smallpox. There are many versions of what happened. According to one, with Woodward defeated Mead bellowed, “Take your life,” to which Woodward replied, “Anything but your Physic.” But that is another story.

In an attempt to keep the bickering between Woodward and Sloane from escalating into violence, Sir Isaac Newton forced Sloane to publish a retraction, indicating he thought some of Woodward’s ire was justified. Woodward’s plans to overthrow Sloane nonetheless continued apace. Woodward managed to get a friend, John Harris, elected secretary. He then proclaimed in a letter to Ralph Thoresby that:

Dr. Sloane declared at the next Meeting he would lay down…. He guesses right enough that the next step would be to set him aside.

Woodward and his faction were so confident by this point that he criticised Newton as incapable. Harris even invited Newton’s nemesis, Leibniz, to write for the Transactions. Perhaps Woodward’s ambition was becoming so great that he hoped to be Newton’s successor as President of the Royal Society–an honour that would fall to Sloane much later, in 1727.

The power struggle culminated when Sloane was presenting on bezoars to the Society. Woodward attacked Sloane’s thesis and Sloane, unable to come up with a reply, allegedly resorted to making faces at Woodward.  These grimaces were “very strange and surprising, and such as were enough to provide any ingenuous sensible man to a warmth.”

If only we knew what the grimace was... Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

If only we knew what the grimace was… Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Council was convened to resolve this controversy once and for all. They debated whether Sloane had actually been making faces and whether Woodward’s ire was justified. Woodward seemed on the brink of victory, but then lost his temper when Sloane denied the charges: “Speak sense, or English, and we shall understand you!” Woodward, unwilling to apologize was summarily kicked out. He then claimed that Sloane had packed the Council with his cronies, complaining to no avail of the “Mystery of Iniquity that reigns there.His friend Harris was soon enough replaced and so his entire revolution fell apart.

Although it may be more amusing to think of these eminent doctors as perpetually busy with childish bickering, they were capable of acting professionally on occasion. Even after this great controversy Woodward was willing to recommend  Sloane to a patient and attempted to enlist Sloane’s support to obtain a lucrative new position. Still, their showdown does appear to have put a bit of a damper on their correspondence, and it would seem that their relationship never entirely recovered.

As it happened, with Woodward gone, Sloane and Newton soon fell to sniping at one another. When Sloane was forced to resign as secretary in 1713, Woodward ended up on the side of Sloane against Newton, who Woodward now saw as an evil tyrant holding the Society back.

The more things change, the more they stay the same?



Benedict, Barbara. “Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Life, 36, 2 (2012).

Levine, Joseph. Doctor Woodward’s Shield: History, Science, and Satire in Augustan England. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977.

MacGregor, Arthur. “The Life, Character and Career of Sir Hans Sloane,” Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary Founding Father of the British Museum. Ed. Arthur MacGregor. London: British Museum Press, 1994.

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.

How to Build a Universal Collection, or Nicknackatory

By James Hawkes

Sloane and me at the British Museum.

Sloane and I at the British Museum.

The sheer immensity of Sloane’s collection poses a daunting challenge for the researcher, especially given its present division among different institutions. It might be useful to consider Sloane’s collection alongside smaller and more manageable (not to mention intact!) ones.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the United Kingdom as part of a senior-undergraduate course offered by the University of Saskatchewan. Coins in Early Modern Collections of Curiosities was a hands-on study of coins in two early modern cabinets of curiosities: John Bargrave’s seventeenth-century collection (Canterbury Cathedral) and William Constable late 18th century cabinet of curiosities  (Burton Constable).

Although Sloane’s numismatic collection has physically endured better than, say, his beloved butterflies, we don’t have many details about this part of the collection. The catalogues describing Sloane’s coins disappeared during the Second World War.  But by studying other complete (if comparatively small) early modern collections of coins, gives insight into Sloane’s goals and influences.

Cabinets of Curiosities were intended to represent the whole of Creation in microcosm, something far easier to discern with intact collections. In our age of narrow specialisation, Sloane’s collection has been divvied up so thoroughly between the British Library, the British Museumn, and the Natural History Museum, that the universalising ambition of Sloane can be hard to see. Smaller cabinets also provide an appreciation for how the sheer size of Sloane’s collection made it so exceptional.

No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)

No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)

So, how do you go about building a universal collection?

The world is filled with strange and wondrous objects and if you are as serious about building a microcosm of it as Sloane was, then you’ll need to get your hands on some pretty weird artefacts. These can range from simple oddities like a “rope snapped by a strong man,” to an alicorn or even a horn from a woman’s head. 

Not all of Sloane’s contemporaries were enthusiastic about his penchant for collecting almost anything that fell into his hands. As Horace Walpole, one of the trustees Sloane appointed to posthumously oversee his collection said:

You will scarce guess how I employ my time; chiefly at present in the guardianship of embryos and cockleshells. Sir hans [sic] Sloane is dead, and has made me one of the trustees to his museum. . . . He valued it at fourscore thousand; and so would any body who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear, and spiders as big as geese!

Sir Charles Hanbury Williams also expressed similar sentiments about the value of Sloane’s collecting in an ironic ode on the subject. In this poem he claimed that he was acquiring for Sloane’s “nicknackatory”  such fantastic curiosities as Dido’s sword, Eve’s snakeskin, Adam’s fig-leaf, Noah’s stuffed pigeon, a sultry glance from Cleopatra and a few “strains of Cicero’s eloquence.” He even suggested that Sloane’s inability to distinguish fact from fiction extended  to his medical practice… Sloane has acquired such invaluable medicine as: [1]

The stone whereby Goliath died, Which cures the head-ache, well apply’d.

It is certainly worth noting that Sloane’s medicine chest contained some items that we would now think of as pretty odd, such as holding bezoars (a mass from a goat’s intestines) as sovereign against poison.

Many major English museums originated–like the British Museum–in personal cabinets of curiosities, but these were so integrated with other collections that the institutions are uncertain about the provenance of a number of the artefacts in their care. For historians, this tendency to merge collections rather than to preserve them in pristine isolation (as the British Library treats stamp collections) may seem unfortunate.

However, this disregard of previous collectors and focus on the artefacts themselves was also the general practice of Sloane and his contemporaries. For instance, Elias Ashmole’s collection (which became the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) was largely grounded in the Ark of the Tradescants. Sloane himself was (in)famous for how much of his incomparable collection was built on the wholesale acquisition of the collections of others.

Just as Sloane was attempting to present the world in microcosm, the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum can be seen as an attempt to represent Sloane’s collection in microcosm. Our class visit to the gallery was an opportunity to see items from Sloane’s collection, with its strange juxtaposition of naturalia and classicism. This gives a small taste of the experience that Sloane’s contemporaries might have had when visiting his in Chelsea so many centuries ago. It is a powerful moment to actually see the physical objects of centuries ago, rather than merely to read about them or look at pictures. The heady experience of actually seeing the objects is of course why–both in Sloane’s time and today–museums are so popular. Cliche but true, they make history come to life!

A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

[1] Barbara M. Benedict, “Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Life, 36, 2 (2012), 120, 126-128.

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.