Tag: Richard Mead

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.

Mary Davis, the horned woman

By Felicity Roberts

Mary Davis by an anonymous artist. Credit: British Museum.

Mary Davis by an anonymous artist. Credit: British Museum.

At the British Museum, near the centre of the Enlightenment Gallery in wall press 156, there is a portrait in oils of a woman with what appear to be horn-like growths coming from the side of her head.  The woman has an arresting, impassive facial expression.  She wears no cap, so her head is exposed to the viewer, but she is demurely dressed, with her left arm drawn up and across her body so that her hand rests firmly on her collar. She seems to wait patiently for our observation of her to end.

The inscription on the painting reads:

“This is the portraiture of Mary Davis, an inhabitant of Great Saughall near Ches[ter.]  Was taken Ano. Dom. 1668, Aetatis 74 when she was 28 years old an excrescence rose uppon her head which continued thirty years like to a wen then grew into two hornes after 5 years she cast them then grew 2 more after 5 years she cast them. These uppon her head have grown 4 years and are to be seen […cropped]”.

Today we would say that Mary Davis had developed cutaneous horns.  It is a relatively rare condition in which a lesion or lesions develop on the skin, usually around the face or neck, sometimes protruding several centimetres.  Such lesions occur more frequently in older people and on commonly exposed parts of the body. Although their cause has been linked with sun exposure, underlying skin tumours has also been suggested.  Even with these medical explanations, a person who develops cutaneous horns today may still be the subject of news reports likening their appearance to that of the devil.

In the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, such persons were treated as both wonders and anomalies of nature [1].  That is to say, their condition was interpreted as both a religious portent and a natural phenomenon.  Davis herself was, as an aging widow, exhibited at the Swan pub on the Strand where members of the public could come to see “such a Wonder in Nature, as hath neither been read nor heard of […] since the Creation” [2].  Yet her portrait was also collected by natural philosophers, and the horns she shed entered various cabinets of curiosity, including, it seems, the Ashmolean Museum and the British Museum. Both these specimens are now lost [3].  The interest shown in Davis’ condition is a good example of the overlap that existed between popular and scientific culture in London at the turn of the eighteenth century.

Sir Hans Sloane certainly had an interest in curious objects, especially ones which seemed to transgress the boundaries between human and animal, natural and monstrous.  He owned a horn shed by a Mrs French of Tenterden which he entered as specimen 519 in his Humana MS catalogue [4].  He also apparently owned the Mary Davis portrait.  In a letter of August 1709 Sloane’s friend Dr Richard Middleton Massey wrote:

“I have been in Cheshire & Lancashire, where I think I have mett with a curiosity, tis an originall picture in oil paint of Mary Davis the Horned Woman of Saughall in Cheshire”

Sloane must have indicated an interest in the portrait to Massey, because in a follow up letter of October 1709 Massey wrote:

“I will send up ye picture the first opportunity if you please call upon Mr Dixon at the Greyhound in Cornhill”

This must be the portrait which now hangs in the Enlightenment Gallery.  Did Sloane also own Mary Davis’ horn, which also entered the British Museum but was subsequently lost?  I have found no evidence for this in the letters as yet!

The provenance of the British Museum’s painting of Davis has long been shrouded in mystery.  Its Collection Online entry states it could have come from either Dr Richard Mead or Sloane.  But I think these Sloane letters suggest that the painting was Sloane’s before it became the Museum’s.


[1] For further information, see Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the order of nature 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 2001).

[2] J. Morgan (ed.), Phoenix Britannicus: being a miscellaneous collection of scarce and curious tracts […] collected by J Morgan, Gent (London, 1732), 248-250.

[3] Jan Bondeson, ‘Everard Home, John Hunter and cutaneous horns: a historical review’, American Journal of Dermatopathology 23 (2001), 362-369.

[4] Natural History Museum, Sloane MS Catalogue of Fossils, 6 vols. Vol 1, f. 344r.

Hans Sloane and the Pit

Headlines today: “‘Black Death pit’ unearthed by Crossrail project“. It’s all very exciting when London starts to dig deep under its surface, with various plague pits, Bronze Age transport networks and more being unearthed. I can’t help thinking, sometimes, that it’s only a matter of time before we have a Quatermass and the Pit situation!

In the eighteenth century, building on a plague pit was a matter of national concern. On 16 March 1723, The British Journal (iss. XXVI) reported that Richard Mead and Sloane had been consulted on the matter of Lord Craven wanting to build over the Pest-House Fields. As I’ve discussed before, Sloane–who was no less than a court physician and President of the Royal College of Physicians–and Mead had advised the government about preventing an outbreak in London during the Marseilles plague of 1720-22.

Human bones and skulls in a brick-built pit. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

During the plague of 1665, William, 1st Earl of Craven, stayed in London as a member of a commission to prevent the plague’s spread. The commission recommended isolating the sick by setting up pest houses and burying the dead in plague pits. A few years after the outbreak (1671), Lord Craven purchased land near Lancaster Gate, with a Pest House Field for the use of nearby parishes: St. Paul, St. Clement Danes, St. Martin-in-the-Fields and St. James.By 1700, however, London was growing rapidly and, without a recent outbreak of the plague, the unused land was increasingly seen as a problem. In any case, with so many people around, it could no longer serve as a place of isolation if an epidemic did break out.[1]

The answer to Lord Craven’s question in 1723 was “no”. The physicians had apparently

determin’d, that the Digging them [the land] up might be of dangerous Consequence, there having been many hundred distemper’d Bodies buried there in the Plague Time.

With the memory of the Marseilles plague still fresh in people’s minds, this was probably not the best time for Lord Craven to ask! The fact that the plague experts Sloane and Mead were called in for a consultation suggests that the disposal of Lord Craven’s land was a matter of national importance. If meddling with the land could cause a plague outbreak, threatening the health of people and the economy, it should not be done.

Eleven years later, the family had greater success in determining the use of their land. Although the government did not consult Sloane and Mead this time, their decisions still erred on the side of caution. The government specified that only a hospital could be built on the site.

By the 1820s, the family had divided and leased the land, but a curious clause was written into the leases: the leasees were required to turn over the land for use during a plague outbreak. The definition of ‘plague’ was a bit ambiguous: did this refer only to plague or to any infectious disease? This became a pressing matter during the 1833 cholera epidemic, but fortunately for the tenants, the lease remained limited to plague. With plague deemed unlikely ever to happen again, a wealthy neighbourhood soon spread across the area.

Then and now, London is frequently faced with the problem of its multitude of inconvenient corpses. The ghost of the plague that haunted eighteenth-century London’s plague pits still peeks its head out every so often, but we can greet it with curiosity instead of fear.[2]

[1.] A short history of the Craven Estate can be read here: http://www.corringham.eu/cravenestate.html.

[2.] UPDATED 16 MARCH 2013: Some of us, anyhow. A slightly strange article in The Telegraph has taken the angle of trying to scare readers about the possible dangers posed by old plague pits. Darin Hayton has also picked up on some media hyperbole and commenter anxiety about the discovery, which he discusses in his post “A Dozen Medieval Plague Victims?”

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.