The Sad Kiss of 1722

Today is National Kissing Day in the U.K.  I’m not normally in favour of faux holidays, but there’s nothing wrong with a day that “spreads a bit of joy” (as one of the organisers puts it). It also inspired me to wonder: did any of the people who wrote to Dr. Sloane about medical problems ever mention kissing? One thing I learned from my investigation: any kisses in medical letters are unlikely to spread joy…  I want to consider the saddest kiss of all that appears in Sloane’s correspondence: one between two of Lord Lymington’s children in 1722.

The dance of death: the family and children. Two children kissing on the right. Thomas Rowlandson, 1816. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The dance of death: the family and children. Two children kissing on the right. Thomas Rowlandson, 1816. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Dr. John Hughes wrote to Hans Sloane for advice about Borlace Wallop, aged two. The young lad suffered from a “tettering humour” in his face and stomach, along with coughing and fits. When you read “tetter”, imagine a skin disease with clusters of pustules in clusters that would harden and become scabby. It must have been painful: or, as Dr. Hughes described it, “very sharp and blistering”. Borlace remained, nonetheless, a lusty lad with a good appetite.

The family believed that Borlace had become ill after kissing his baby sister, Mary, who had also had similar symptoms. The real worry, though, was the prospect of death. Wee Mary had just died from the ailment, aged only eight months. Lord Lymington had a high opinion of Sloane and wanted to know how they could keep his son from dying, too.

Sloane prescribed an uncomfortable treatment of bleeding and purging. It might seem torturous to us to inflict further pain on the child, but the goal of the treatment was to remove the foul humour causing the problem. There wasn’t really much else that could be done apart from palliative care. The good news is that Borlace recovered.[1]

The letter itself is short, but it evokes a series of poignant images: the sweet affection of two infants; the suffering of small children; the fear and desperation of a loving family. A sad kiss, indeed.

[1] Borlace was still destined to die young, at the age of twenty-one from a fever caught after the attack on Fort San Lazaro.

8 comments on “The Sad Kiss of 1722

    • Lisa Smith on

      Thanks! Borlace is an unfortunate name, but it can be explained: it was a family surname. He was just really unlucky. By the way, it’s not too late to plan for a kissing day– The international one is July 6.

      Reply
  1. gabrielablandy on

    This really takes you back to how frightening it must have been to live in times before decent medical advances. That skin infection sounds nasty! As always – you have a knack of transporting the reader, because you never overburden with too much of the technical. Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Hannah Newton on

    This is fascinating! Kissing between siblings seems to have elicited mixed reactions from parents in the early modern period. In 1650, 13-year-old Susanna Bicks, dying of plague, ‘took her young little Sister in her arms, a Child of six months old, and she kissed it with much affection’. Her father took ‘the poor little Child away from her, from the hazard of that fiery distemper, and bid his daughter to give her from her, for he had already too much to bear’. But I’ve also found cases where kissing was encouraged, particularly in the case of smallpox – parents hoped the healthy child would catch the disease and recover, a bit like our notion of ‘chicken pox parties’ today. (Susanna’s story is in James Janeway’s A Token for Children. The Second part (London, 1673).

    Reply
    • Lisa Smith on

      Thanks, Hannah, for those wonderful stories. I can well understand the mixed reactions of parents. What intrigues me is that the kiss itself was seen as particularly important in the transmission of these diseases, since children often slept together or, at the very least, would have generally been in close proximity.

      Reply

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