Category: Early Modern History

Domesticity and Astronomy in Eighteenth-Century England

This past week has been an exciting time for portents! What with a meteor blasting into Russia, an asteriod passing close to earth, St. Peter’s Basilica being struck by lightning, and the Pope resigning, early modern people would have been getting a bit nervous…[1] As it is, some people believe that the lightning strike was a sign that God approves the Pope’s decision. Perhaps we live in a more optimistic era.

There are several letters in the Sloane Correspondence database about early modern astronomy, although only two that mention comets.[2] By the eighteenth century, there was a growing shift away from seeing dramatic astronomical events as portents. Clergyman William Derham (1657-1735), for example, wrote to Sloane regularly about natural philosophy and his letters (dated 28 March 1706) reveal a careful attention to matters of fact rather than a concern with religious signs.[3]

“Part of a Letter from the Reverend Mr W Derham, F.R.S. Concerning a Glade of Light Observed in the Heavens”. Philosophical Transactions, vol. 25, no. 305 (1706), p. 2221.

In one of Derham’s letters, which also appeared in the Philosophical Transactions (vol. 25, 1706), he described his star-gazing just before Easter. While observing the satellites of Saturn, he spotted a “glade of light” in the constellation of Taurus. The light had a tail like a comet, but a pointy upper end instead of a rounded one. This, Derham was certain, was similar to what Joshua Childrey and Giovanni Domenico Cassini had observed. When the following nights were cloudy, Derham was unable to spot the glade again–and, although Easter Day was fair, he “forgot it unluckily then”. By the time he was next able to look at the skies, the glade of light was gone.

This was the only bit of Derham’s rather long letter that was published in the Phil. Trans. this time. In the letter, Derham also dicussed sunspots and requested advice about his wife’s eye problems. This was typical of many of Sloane’s correspondents, whose letters blurred the boundaries between scholarly, social and medical matters.

Anna Derham, aged about 31, was suffering from eye problems. Sloane had recommended that she take a variety of medicines, including a purge (and rather revoltingly, woodlice), in addition to eye drops. The eye drops, Derham reported, did not agree with his wife and had caused an inflammation. The purge, moreover, had left Mrs. Derham with violent pains spreading from above her eye to throughout her head and face. Derham believed that the eye medicine had resulted in his wife’s cornea wasting away. The outcome of the eye problem was not noted, but a letter from later that year (30 August 1706) mentioned Mrs. Derham’s increasingly severe headaches, which worried both her and her husband. Whether her health improved (or Derham simply distrusted Sloane’s advice in this case) is unclear, but Derham did not mention his wife’s health again until November 1710 when he feared that she might die from peripneumonia. (Mrs. Derham didn’t, managing to outlive her husband.)

What strikes me as particularly interesting in Derham’s account is the small detail that he forgot to look at the skies on Easter Sunday. As a clergyman, he was no doubt very busy in the week leading up to and including Easter. It would be entirely understandable that he might forget… but he did manage to look out his telescope in the nights prior to Easter.

The rather pressing matter of his wife’s health, on the other hand, is the most likely reason. It’s clear that her symptoms were alarming and disabling (as would have been the treatments, as purges kept one very close to the chamberpot). To compound the domestic disruption, the couple had four children between the ages of two and six in 1706. At the very least, Derham was monitoring his wife’s health and overseeing her medical care.[4] Even with domestic help, Mrs. Derham’s poor health would have posed a challenge for the household at the best of times, but even more so at the busiest time of year for a clergyman’s family.

Early modern scientific endeavours often took place within the early modern household, meaning that these activities were inevitably subject to the rhythms and disruptions of daily life. With his ill wife, several young children, and Easter duties, Derham simply did not have time to remember.


[1] For other recent blogging on historical comets, see Darin Hayton on “Meteorites and Comets in Pre-Modern Europe” and Rupert Baker on the comets in the Philosophical Transactions (“Watch the Skies“).

[2] The other letter was from Leibniz (5 May 1702), which was an account in Latin of a newly discovered comet.

[3] On Derham and his family, see Marja Smolenaars, “Derham, William (1657-1735)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. [, accessed 7 June 2011.]

[4] For more on men’s medical caregiving roles within the family, see my article “The Relative Duties of a Man: Domestic Medicine in England and France, ca. 1685-1740”, Journal of Family History 31, 3 (2006): 237-256.

Hans Sloane’s New York Connections

I was just in New York at a rather fun Cookbook Conference, speaking on medicinal remedies in manuscript recipe books. As I was preparing for my first trip to New York, I idly searched the Sloane database, wondering whether Sloane had any New York connections. I found two letters that refer to New York.

Central Park, New York, February 2013. Photo Credit and Copyright: Mark Gudgeon. Used with permission.

The first is from Patrick Gordon, a naval chaplain, who wrote to Sloane in late April 1702. Gordon apologised for missing the last Royal Society meeting and recent Philosophical Transactions. He asked if there were any commands from the Royal Society for his upcoming residence in New York. Gordon noted that he would be residing in New York for several years. The Royal Society (and Sloane) relied on the reports of men deemed reliable (such as Gordon) for information about medical and scientific matters from across the world.

At present, no subsequent letters from Gordon are in the database, but letters from other men in North America suggest how this relationship might have functioned. Col. William Byrd, for example, wrote a few letters from North America between 1706 and 1710. He clearly referred to Royal Society directives in the information he gathered. Byrd even sent samples, such as roots to cure snakebites.

Sometimes requests for assistance came to Sloane from the other side of the world. On 30 October 1716, William Vesey of New York wrote to Sloane to thank him for medical advice.

The spires of the third Trinity Church (c. 1846) against the backdrop of 1 World Trade Center. Credit and copyright: Lisa Smith.

Vesey had been receiving Sloane’s advice for smallpox and was now recovering from it. Vesey, who was one of the early rectors of Trinity Church in Manhattan, had visited England in 1714-15.(1) As payment, Vesey enclosed five guineas. This was the equivalent of about £444 in 2005 and would have bought one cow in 1720.(2)

Sloane’s reputation as a physician was indeed international! That said, most of his patients from outside Britain and Ireland came from Jamaica, France and the Netherlands. Many were people who had travelled abroad (such as Isabella Pierrepont, the Duchess of Kingston) or, like Vesey, had heard of Sloane while in London (such as the Swedish ambassador, Count Carl Gyllenborg).

Although Sloane’s New York connections are not in themselves particularly impressive, they were a small part of a much wider global network of travellers and shared ideas.

(1) This I discovered on an amble about Lower Manhattan after writing this post. Vesey has a street named after him and is mentioned on the sign outside Trinity Church. See also the Wikipedia entry for William Vesey.

(2) This was calculated using the National Archives historical currency converter

Note: this entry was updated on February 13, 2012 with the information about Vesey’s occupation and travels.


Contracts and Early Modern Scholarly Networks

By Ann-Marie Hansen

In the face of such an extensive collection of correspondence as Sir Hans Sloane’s, one might well ask how a person could establish such a network of contacts in the days before electronic social-media. Each relationship tells its own story, of course, but Sloane communicated with many scholars within what was known as the Republic of Letters. This intellectual community had a set of rules governing the proper way of establishing a written exchange. (For recent commentary on the need for rules in online academic sociability today, see here, here and here!)

One such practice was the epistolary contract, which allows us to understand how such relationships were established. This was a formal agreement between correspondents that determined their respective responsibilities and subsequently formed the basis for all further communication. Such contracts were especially necessary in cases where the correspondents never met and so couldn’t discuss the details in person; as a result we find evidence of several such contracts in Sloane’s correspondence with French scholars.

Jean Paul Bignon. Engraving by C. Duflos after H. Rigaud, 1708. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In the crucial first letters of an exchange a relationship would be offered and, if accepted, the specific terms would be negotiated such that the ensuing “commerce de lettres” would suit both parties. The language used reveals a contractual nature of the proposed exchange, for example referring to conditions and obligation. There is, however, also a hint of the relationship’s commercial nature. The goods and services to be provided by one or both sides were discussed, as well as the fair compensation for these favours. This was ordinarily payment in kind, such as scientific news from France being traded for scientific news from England. This was the case in the exchange proposed by the Abbé Jean-Paul Bignon, who wrote:


My wishes would be fulfilled if […] it would please you to enter into some sort of exchange with me, and from time to time send me news of what is happening in the learned world. […] To make an advance on the dealings that I am proposing, the principal gain from which will be mine, I am sending you literary news which particular reasons keep us from printing in our journals. (Sloane MS 4041, f. 324)

Epistolary contracts sometimes stipulated how often each person had to write, and if either party did not meet these obligations they could expect to be reprimanded for their silence. Sloane himself was scolded in November 1695 for neglecting his recently established correspondence with the journalist Henri Basnage de Beauval. Having heard of Sloane’s recent nuptials with Elizabeth Langley (in May 1695), Basnage admitted that taking a wealthy wife was sufficient reason for having lately been overly occupied, but insisted that Sloane’s new situation did not free him from his prior commitments.

But please, you are not henceforth excused from the obligation to which you committed yourself. It is time that I remind you that you offered me an epistolary exchange, and that is a commitment which I do not accept to have been annulled by the other duties that you have recently taken upon yourself. Be so good then as to fulfill what you promised me, and recognize that it is well that I should ask you to do so. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 219)

Sloane must have replied promptly enough after that, as the two men exchanged news for some years to come. Moreover, given how vast a network of contacts continued to communicate with Sloane, this temporary failing on his part seems to have been a rather rare occurrence. He did only marry the one time after all.

Original French Quotations

(1) Je serois au comble de mes souhaits si […] vous voudrés bien entrer dans quelque sorte de commerce avec moi; et me mander de temps en temps ce qu’il y aura de nouveau par rapport aux Lettres. […] Pour faire des avances du commerce que je vous propose, et dont le principal ­­fruit doit me revenir, je vous envoye les nouvelles Litteraires que des raisons particulieres nous empechent d’imprimer dans nos Journaux.

(2) Mais vous n’etes pas s’il vous plaist dispensé pour toujours de l’obligation oû vous vous estes engagé vous mesme. Il est temps que je vous fasse souvenir que vous m’avez offert un commerce de lettres, et c’est un engagement que je ne pretends point qui soit rompu par les autres soins dont vous venez de vous charger. Ayez donc la bonté d’executer ce que vous m’avez promis, et trouvez bon que je vous en sollicite.

Preparing for an Epidemic in the Eighteenth Century

Tonight BBC2 will be airing a show called Winter Viruses and How to Beat Them. The news was recently filled, of course, with reports on rapidly spreading epidemics of influenza and norovirus; medical historian Alun Withey even blogged about the contemporary and seventeenth-century fascination with the spread of disease. What intrigues me, however, is the actions people took to deal with their fear of disease.

In late May 1720, the plague entered Marseilles, the major trading port in South France, on ships coming in from Levant. The plague rapidly spready throughout the city in the next few months, disrupting commerce and daily life. The French government intervened with strict quarantine measures for both sick people and incoming ships.

Contemporary engraving of the Marseilles plague in 1720, the Quartier Belsunce. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile: back in England… South Sea stocks had been rising in an unrealistic way over the summer months, only to crash in September, resulting in bankrupt investors and panic spreading like an epidemic. Health suddenly became of national interest: protecting the teetering economy became of paramount importance. The fear? That the Marseilles plague might infect Britain via the trade routes.

The Lords Justices called in physician Richard Mead to consider how the plague might be prevented “for the Publick Safety” in 1720. That autumn, the Board of Trade and Plantations investigated methods of quarantine used elsewhere and recommended that Parliament bring in more border control and wider quarantine powers. But it was not until October 1721 that more decisive action was taken.

This time, Sir Hans Sloane, John Arbuthnot and Mead were summoned. In Sloane’s papers (British Library Sloane MS 4034), there are rough drafts of their advice for the Council on how to collect better information about contagious diseases from Bills of Mortality and how to set up barracks near London for quarantines. By December 1721, a Bill was passed that allowed the King to stop trade with infected countries, order fire on any potentially infected ship, establish a domestic military presence, quarantine towns, and remove the sick to lazarettos. The bill was widely criticised for being un-British and something that would only cause more fear. The French, critics argued, were more used to a standing army and harsh measures that limited people’s rights.

Even after the Bill was passed, complaints continued. Some of Sloane’s correspondents scolded him for allowing these “somewhat severe” recommendations.  ‘Belinda’ dramatically claimed that the country was “almost ruined by south sea” by a corrupt government, while “to complet the misery by the advice of Mead that scotch quack [Arbuthnot] wee are to be shutt up in pest houses garded by soldeirs and hired watchmen”. She begged that Sloane intervene: “it is commonly said that you Sr. was not for this barbarous act and I am very willing to… belive you were not haveing alwayes approved your self a person of great charity to thee poor”. The name ‘Belinda’ probably did not refer to a real woman, but was a pseudonym referencing Alexander Pope’s poem, “The Rape of the Lock”, in which Belinda appears as a satiric personification of Britain. Belinda’s letter, nonetheless, captures the fear that many people had about the Bill. The message was clear: the proposed cure for the nation was worse than the disease.

Little did Belinda know just how harsh the initial report by Mead, Arbuthnot and Sloane had been! In their rough draft, the doctors had actually recommended that searchers report any cases immediately to the Council of Health “on pain of death”, that medical practitioners and household heads face severe financial penalties for not alerting authorities, and that any Officers dealing with the plague wear special markings. These, at least, had not appeared in the Bill…

By February 1721/2, Parliament was forced to reconsider the Act and repealed the clauses about domestic measures. When the plague ended in 1722, the British government had not needed to invoke its new act. Sloane may have appeared to the concerned citizens as a possible ally because of his reputation of being charitable, but he also acted to represent and enforce state power.

Sir Hans Sloane’s Will of 1739

Sir Hans Sloane died on this day, 11 January 1753. Sloane, as I’ve noted before, is notoriously tricky to find since his letters are scattered and he wrote relatively little. His will is, oddly enough, one of the few documents that provides hints of the man behind the collection. Here, I’ll focus on the 1739 version of his will.[1]

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane’s wishes were simple in the first instance: to be buried in Chelsea, to have his intimates invited to the funeral, and that his friends be given rings worth twenty shillings. His landed estates were divided into thirds for his eldest daughter Mrs Stanley, youngest daughter Lady Cadogan, and his niece Fowler (who was in the Elsmere family). He also left any of his “live rare animals” to the care of the Duke of Richmond.

Considering the size of his collections and properties, he left relatively modest bequests. Perhaps he was cash-strapped. Indeed, he made alternative provisions for his heirs in case the sale of the collections didn’t raise sufficient funds! He left fifty pounds each to his nephew William Sloane, sister Alice Elsmere and to her son Sloane Elsmere, but £200 to each of her two daughters. His grandson Hans Stanley and a John Roberts of Lincoln’s Inn received £100. Notably, the most vulnerable family members–unmarried nieces and young men–received the largest gifts.

His bequests to servants were comparatively generous. Two of his named servants, Henry Darlington and Martha Katling, were to receive an annuity of ten pounds for the rest of their lives, while all of his servants would receive one full year’s wages in addition to wages owed and five pounds to buy mourning clothes.[2]

What he saw as his greatest legacy, however, were the intangibles. When it came to his daughters, relations, and friends, he “earnestly recommend[ed] to them the practice of moral and religious duties, as being of greater use to them than any thing I can leave them”. This would help them “through the difficulties of [life], with more inward quiet, satisfaction and better health than otherways, and with the esteem and respect of their friends and acquaintance”.

Sloane also valued his collection not for its worth or objects, but for the reasons why he had collected. He wrote at length about how and why he had built his collections.

From my youth I have been a great observer and admirer of the wonderful power, wisdom and contrivance of the Almighty God, appearing in the works of his Creation; and have gathered together many things in my own travels or voyages, or had them from others.

One of these “others” was William Courten, his “ever honoured, late friend”, who had left him an entire collection. To this collection, Sloane had added printed and manuscript books, “natural and artificial curiosities, precious stones, books of dryed samples of plants, miniatures, drawings, prints, medals”. Sloane’s collection was now valued at over £50000.

Sloane hoped that his executors (son-in-law Charles Lord Cadogan, nephew William Sloane and Chelsea rector Sloane Elsmere) would keep the collection together as something that would not just outlast him, but because it had wider uses: “the manifestation of the glory of God, the confutation of atheism and its consequences, the use and improvement of physic, and other arts and sciences, and benefit of mankind”. For Sloane, it seems that he real importance of his collections was knowledge of the natural world and a deeper understanding of God.

More specifically, though, his will and desire was that the government of Great Britain would understand the collection’s true value and purchase it at the bargain price of £20000. To this end, Sloane requested that his friends who had access to the King, George II–the Duke of Richmond, Lord Cadogan, Sir Robert Walpole, Sir Paul Methuen and Mr. Edgcombe–would intercede on his behalf. If Britain refused, the collection should be offered to (in this order) the Royal Society, Oxford University, Edinburgh College of Physicians, Paris Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, Berlin Academy of Sciences or Madrid Academy of Sciences.

Later codicils to the will are intriguing, hinting at Sloane’s changing self-perception and public interest in his collections over time. Servants received more money. He rethought the list of potential buyers for the collection. And, above all, he emphasised the ways in which his collections would benefit the British nation. But that is subject enough for another post!

[1] Sir Hans Sloane, The Will of Sir Hans Sloane, Bart. Deceased (London, 1753).

[2] 10 pounds in 1753 is worth approximately 850 pounds today, while 100 pounds is worth approximately 8500 pounds. For a sense of what these bequests could buy during the eighteenth century, see Old Bailey Online.

Suffering from Colds in the Eighteenth Century

I apologise for my unexpectedly long absence from the blog, occasioned by a nasty cold followed by an even worse chest infection. But now that I’m on the mend thanks to a course of antibiotics, I have the luxury of sufficient oxygen in my blood stream to reflect on colds in days of yore.

A sick man with a cold. Coloured lithograph, 1833. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While nobody ever dies from the common cold, complications from colds can be debilitating or even fatal: chest infections, pneumonia, pleurisy… And these sorts of problems regularly developed in eighteenth-century patients. For fun, I trawled through the database for symptoms nearest my own to see how patients would have treated their colds. It’s not a pretty picture: lengthy and dangerous illnesses and ineffective and uncomfortable treatments.

Patients rarely consulted Sloane for recent or urgent problems, but colds often slipped into the chronic category. Elizabeth Southwell, in an undated letter,* noted that her cold had already lasted two weeks. In 1708, Elizabeth Howland referred to hers lasting three weeks. Lord Lempster, who had a chronic lung condition, had already been suffering from a cold for two weeks when his doctor James Keill wrote to Sloane on June 22, 1710. As if that wasn’t long enough, the winner of these misery sweepstakes was the Earl of Thanet who reported on July 31, 1712 that he had been taking remedies for is cold since June 12.

These weren’t just gracefully fading colds, moreover, but ones that worried sufferers. Keill had anticipated Lord Lempsters’s death, given his laboured breathing; the patient remained seriously ill when Keill wrote again on July 9. Lord Lempster, Southwell and Howland had all started to spit occasional blood in their phlegm. Southwell’s cough was so violent she had given up on taking most remedies, except diacodium (a painkiller made of poppies). The Earl of Thanet and Howland both suffered from chest pains, which can indicate the onset of a serious chest ailment, while the Earl and Southwell had sore throats. Howland was also constantly hot, which she attributed to a sharpness and heat in her blood. Colds that wouldn’t clear up might have different–and apparently hot–effects, as Dr. Keill suggested when diagnosing Lord Lempster’s problems as a stoppage of blood rather than the more serious inflammation of the lungs. Either way, these were serious complications from what started as a cold.

Although there were other remedies used, the treatments focused primarily on diet, bleeding, blistering and purging. The Earl and Howland both drank milk, then known for its healthful benefits in lung ailments. The Earl and Southwell ate fruit–possibly to keep their bowels regular. Southwell had eaten figs, while the Earl had tried and rejected oranges (proposing instead pears). All four patients were bled. Southwell, for example, had been bled twice and Lord Lempster at least three times (10 ounces, 8 ounces, and 8 ounces). Keill also suggested that Lord Lempster try blisters and purging; the Earl initially used blisters, but thought a bit of purging could also be useful. Other remedies described included powder of pearl (the Earl), chalybeates to cause vomiting (Lempster), barley water, linseed oil, sarsaparilla and China tea (Howland). The main goal of the remedies was to reduce inflammation of the lungs, break up the stoppages of the blood, or to cool the blood.

The fates of these eighteenth-century patients? Elizabeth Howland (c. 1658- 1719) and the Earl of Thanet (1644-1729) lasted many years after. Elizabeth Southwell (1674-1709) was the youngest sufferer and she died within a few years of her illness (though not necessarily related). Lord Lempster (1648-1711) was already chronically ill before he contracted his cold, and continued poorly for another year and a half before he died.

Whatever the rationale behind eighteenth-century explanations of and treatments for colds, I’m just glad that I didn’t have to suffer bleeding, purging, and blisters in addition to the misery of a chest infection!

*After 1705 when she had a son. The letter refers to visiting her young ill son.

An Eighteenth-Century Case of Hair Voided by Urine

“Honourable Sir!” wrote Thomas Knight to Sloane in February 1737 (British Library, Sloane MS 4034, ff. 34-5). He wished Sloane’s advice on an “uncommon Case”—the discovery of hairs discharged by a man who suffered from a burning pain during urinating. Knight thoughtfully enclosed the matter in a pill box for Sloane’s examination.

The patient must have been in great pain as all the adjacent parts, internal and external, were swollen and irritated. He had tried bleeding, clysters, emulsions, and opiates, all to no avail; he was only relieved when he finally passed the “hairy Substance with the gritty Matter that adheres to it”. Importantly, the patient had “kept a strict Regimen” for many years because of gout and “incontinency of urine”. As part of his regimen, he regularly drank cow’s milk.

L. Beale, Kidney diseases, uinary deposits, 1869.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Knight theorized that the fine hairs had come from the skin of some animal that had gotten into the patient’s body and then circulated through the body until reaching the renal glands. “It is more possible”, he thought, “that they were extraneous, than that they were generated in the Urinary Passages”. He recognised that the veins in the body were indeed very small, but damp hairs “become very flexible, pliable and susceptible of being contorted and of assuming any Figure”. Perhaps “some of the downy-hair about the [cow’s] Udder might got along with the Milk”.

The oddity of the story is itself intriguing, but so too is the afterlife of the letter and sample. The details noted on the back of the letter by Sloane (or on his behalf) suggest the process of cataloguing in his collections.

Apr 27 1738

Ent’d in L.B.

Knight of Hair voided by Urine.


Ph. Tr. No. 460

VIII IX A letter from Mr T Knight to Sir Hans Sloane

pr. R. S. &c concerning Hair voided by Urine.

The letter and/or the sample were kept and entered into one of the collections in 1738. The letter was also passed on to the Royal Society and it was published in Philosophical Transactions no. 460.

So, what did the Royal Society make of Knight’s report? The Phil. Trans. editor in 1739, Cromwell Mortimer, remarked after the letter: “I doubt of these Substances being real Hairs; I imagine they are rather grumous Concretions, formed only in the Kidneys by being squeezed out of the excretory Ducts into the Pelvis”.

Painful enough, in any case, but at least no need to fear drinking milk!

Bed-wetting in the Eighteenth Century

Sometimes the embarrassment and frustration of eighteenth-century sufferers seems to seep from their letters. One such case is that of a young boy, John Plowden. A Mr John Manley of Winchester wrote seven letters to Sloane in 1723-4, asking advice about the child’s lack of bladder control. The relationship between Manley and John is never made clear in the letters. The boy did not seem to be an apprentice and his father was still alive. His age was also not given, though it seems likely that he was at least the age of reason (seven)–but perhaps not much more. John’s own letter was composed in grammatical sentences, but he retained a childish script.

A man carrying a child’s commode. The child has just had an accident, according to the picture’s text. (1769) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In October 1723, Manley complained that John “has several times bepiss’d his Bed, & when ever that happens, it is always but midnight. He has also bepiss’t his Breeches about six times a day.” A month later, John and his nurse insisted that she had been “very careful & vigilant in complying” with providing John with his remedies. The real problem, though–as Manley claimed–was that John “is so negligent that he has sometimes bepiss’t his Breeches in the day time. I say tis his own negligence, for he is never deny’d leave to do down whenever he askes it”. A strong statement.

John reported in January 1724 that his control had improved. He was now able to wake himself up in the night when he needed to urinate and “don’t do it in my Sleep so often as I us’d to do”.  Manley noted that John had occasional mishaps in bed the previous month, but the nurse had spotted a pattern: the “mischances happen chiefly on those nights [when] at going to bed he makes but a small quantity of urine.” With the cause identified, it became possible to change John’s behaviour. Having John write his own letter to Sloane may also have been an attempt to make him take responsibility for his problem.

Setting aside the fact that toilet training is obviously a desirable goal, this case highlights the importance of bodily control from an early age in the eighteenth century. John’s guardian must have been deeply concerned about the “mischances” if he was consulting one of England’s leading physicians: few people wrote to Sloane about children and consulting Sloane was expensive (a guinea per letter). Manley saw this as a troubling matter.

In John’s case, his physical symptoms suggested a potentially worse problem–an underlying lack of self-control. By the early eighteenth century, there was a growing emphasis on masculine self-management in terms of mind, body and behaviour. Young boys were particularly vulnerable to learning bad habits that could have long-term effects. Manley’s letters reveal a tone of increased impatience with the boy’s repeated “negligence”, while John himself recognised a need to regain control of his own body. And this mastery needed to be as much mental as physical, including even the ability to wake himself when asleep. Much was at stake for young John Plowden.

I also discussed this case in “The Body Embarrassed? Rethinking the Leaky Male Body in Eighteenth-Century England and France”, Gender and History 23, 1 (2011): 26-46.

Update October 24, 2013: Hannah Newton has an excellent post up at earlymodernmedicine on remedies and explanations for bed-wetting (“Wet Beds & Hedgehogs”).

An Eighteenth-Century Rogue

A letter that begins “Since the Unfortunate Affair in Kensington whereby I lost all my Substance, My Expectations and my friends” caught my attention while I was rooting through documents in the archives.

Botanist Richard Bradley found himself strapped for cash. He was managing to scrape by “at the publick Expence”, but publishing was an expensive business and all of his money had gone to paying off booksellers. He was even considering going abroad: “my Inclinations are for it, Even into the Most Dangerous country”. Bradley was unsure which was worse: “to live upon Expectations at home is as bad as it can be to venture one’s Life among Savages abroad”. What he truly wanted was “to have a Garden of Experiments for General Use”—something, no doubt, that Bradley hoped would capture Sloane’s attention, given his interest in and support of the Chelsea Physic Garden. He concluded that such a garden would allow him to “gain an Improving Settlement” and to “do my Country some Service without restraint of Booksellers”.

As a scholar, I was struck by his indebtedness to booksellers, but what on earth was his “Unfortunate Affair”? I just had to explore the letter’s background! A bit of digging revealed Bradley to be a bit of a rogue who constantly asked for (and received) money from his friends. Historian Frank Egerton has taken a sympathetic view; Bradley was a man who lived in an age when there was no government support for scholarship and, lacking personal wealth to support his investigations, he ended up in a cycle of constant debt. A fair point… though Bradley seems to have been particularly bad at managing his affairs.

Cannons Park, Middlesex (destroyed). Engraving from Vitruvius Brittanicus, vol. 4, by J. Badeslade & J. Rocque (London, 1739), plate 24. From Wikimedia Commons.

Born in 1688 to a middle-class London family, Bradley received a good education, but never attended university. He published widely on popular medical and scientific topics. He was known for his expertise in botany and managed to attract high-ranking patrons, including James Brydges, the Duke of Chandos (and husband of Cassandra Willughby). Brydges hired Bradley to oversee the planting of gardens at his estate, Cannons Parks, and even helped him out financially in November 1717, sending money to pay off personal debts. Then, in 1719, Brydges found that Bradley had mismanaged a substantial sum. It seems likely that this is the “Unfortunate Affair”. But he recovered and by 1724, William Sherard had recommended him for the position of Professor of Botany at Cambridge. As part of the Professorship, Bradley promised to found a botanical garden.

Bradley was, perhaps, generally unreliable. The Royal Society notes that “his ignorance of Latin and Greek and his failure to perform his duties caused great scandal”. Yet, despite his many problems, Bradley was still able to persuade people to invest in him. If his relationship with Sloane is typical, I can understand why. Bradley comes across as likeable in his correspondence. Starting in 1714, he occasionally sent Sloane news (e.g. of a hermaphroditic horse) and illustrations (e.g. a lizard from Sloane’s cabinet). In return, he sometimes asked Sloane for advice or employment recommendations.

Bradley again found it difficult to make ends meet by 1726. He had not founded his botanical garden and had trouble attracting students (whose fees were needed to support him). He wrote to Sloane offering him a saffron kiln in return for a favour: help in—of course—getting free from the “booksellers’ hands”. The following year, Sloane noted at the bottom of another letter from Bradley: “Sent him a guinea”. In 1729, Bradley’s financial problems appeared to have been sorted he married a wealthy woman. But within a short time, Mary Bradley’s money had gone to pay off his many debts, and the unlucky couple was forced to sell off household furnishings and move into more modest lodgings.

Bradley died as he lived in 1732, after a long and expensive illness that left his wife and child in debt. The last letter about Bradley was from his widow, asking Sloane for support. And, given his history with Bradley, Sloane likely provided the widow with assistance.

Perhaps Mrs Bradley was better than her husband at money management, as she was never heard from again.


F. N. Egerton, “Richard Bradley’s relationship with Sir Hans Sloane”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 25 (1970), 59–77.

F.N. Egerton, “Bradley, Richard (1688?-1732)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005.

Eighteenth-Century Ear Worms

In 1702, Mr. Hare, the Vicar of Cardington in Bedfordshire, wrote to Sloane with a “matter of fact”: a case of ear worms. Gory it may be, but this tale tells us much about domestic medical practices and popular scientific interests!

Hare reported that a young man—who lodged in the same house as him—had been suffering from some running humour and pain in his right ear, which he’d tried to treat with clean wool and honey. After several days, a maid in the house examined the lodger’s ear when she noticed it was bleeding. She “saw something working in his Ear like maggots” and promptly sent for a neighbouring woman to help. The neighbour’s remedy: an application of the steam of warm milk.

Hare took a look at the ear later that day, describing the worms inside as “large maggots in shape & Colour like those that commonly breed in putrefied flesh.” He began to pick out “a great number of Insects”, counting twenty-four. Although there were more worms in the ear, Hare could not extract them; they had burrowed in too deep during the operation. Instead, he left the patient “for about an hour in which time he was very uneasy & full of pain”, with a “thick bloody matter” in the ear. Fortunately, the remaining worms had started to work their way out and Hare “pickd out nine more” during a second attempt. The patient “found himself more at ease upon which we concluded that there were no more.” By the following day the young man had entirely recovered.

Illustrations from the English translation of Nicolas Andry’s An Account of the Breeding of Worms in Human Bodies, London, 1701 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Hare provided several details about domestic medical practices. The young man started off with self-treatment. A maid in the house examined his ear. A neighbouring woman and a clergyman (Hare) administered further treatments. This was typical of the process of seeking medical advice. Physicians and surgeons were seldom the first point of medical assistance—and some problems might be sorted out before their help was even necessary.

We also have some clues as to what sorts of treatments they tried. The honey and cotton wool would have been readily available and were the sort of basic application that one might try to treat an ear problem. According to the Countess of Kent’s A Choice Manual (1687), various types of simple applications for inflammations or injuries included honey. The milk steam also makes sense. In popular thought, milk was thought to draw worms out. But there were various ways this might be administered. In An Account of the Breeding of Worms in Human Bodies (1701), for example, Nicolas Andry referred to injecting warm women’s milk into the ear.

The timing of the letter suggests that the observation was offered in response to Nicolas Andry’s treatise, which had been published in English only the year before. Andry identified the different types of bodily worms, which he attributed to eggs hatching inside the body. In the human head, for example, worms might occur in the brain, nose, eyes, teeth, or ears. An Account detailed Andry’s experiments with a microscope as he explored the inner world of the human body and its many worms—including spermatozoa. Hare called his letter as a “matter of fact” (eyewitness testimony about an observation), but it was of limited scientific value and never appeared in the Philosophical Transactions. His keenness to share his account about a timely subject, however, suggests a man who was deeply interested in science and medicine.

And the account itself reveals a man who had a very steady hand…