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Medical mirth

October 16, 2013
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Laughter is the best medicine – by Mark Bryant

'Bath Races' by Thomas Rowlandson. Wellcome Library

‘Bath Races’ by Thomas Rowlandson. Wellcome Library

Though the clergy have historically suffered the most at the hands of graphic satirists, medical practitioners (like lawyers) have never been far behind. Quack doctors, barber-surgeons, ‘sawbones’ and snake-oil salesmen, using leeches, foul-smelling nostrums, ‘metallic tractors’, cupping-glasses, clysters and all kinds of gruesome devices to alleviate a wide variety of illnesses have been a target for cartoonists and caricaturists from the beginning.

The Wellcome Library has a wonderfully eclectic selection of satirical images that promote laughter as the best medicine (they are online at Wellcome Images). Indeed, nearly 300 years ago, William Hogarth, seen by many as the father of the modern cartoon, attacked medical charlatans in ‘The Company of Undertakers’, which depicts 15 practitioners in various poses – including one holding a urine bottle – above the motto, set between crossed bones, ‘Et plurima mortis imago’ (‘Everywhere the image of death’). The three illustrated at the top of the coat of arms were well- known figures of the day: the oculist ‘Chevalier’ John Taylor (also lampooned by Thomas Patch), the self-taught bone-setter Mrs Sarah Mapp, and Joshua ‘Spot’ Ward, purveyor of the antimony-based ‘Pill and Drop’.

In a similar vein of biting satire, the therapeutic claims about the spa waters at Bath led to a series of drawings by Thomas Rowlandson entitled ‘The Comforts of Bath’. These included ‘Bath Races’ (above), which shows cripples and invalids rushing down a hill. In fact, one of the most common illnesses treated at Bath was gout. It featured in the famous James Gillray print ‘The Gout’ (1799), in which a man’s swollen right foot is attacked by an evil-looking, long-tailed demon which has sunk its razor-sharp teeth and curled, barbed claws into his naked flesh. Another Gillray drawing, ‘Metallic Tractors’ (1801), shows the use of small alloy rods to treat a bulbous nose. Gillray often drew lampoons on the new practice of vaccination, in which cowpox vaccine was used to prevent smallpox. In his drawing ‘The Cow-Pock, or the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation’ (1802, below), miniature cows can be seen erupting from the arms, noses, tongues, ears and eyes of patients soon after they have been treated by the vaccine’s discoverer, Edward Jenner himself.

'The Cow-Pock' by James Gillray. Wellcome Library

‘The Cow-Pock’ by James Gillray. Wellcome Library

The danger of bogus pharmacists is seen in Rowlandson’s ‘Death and the Apothecary, or the Quack Doctor’ (1814), in which the skeletal figure of Death is revealed grinding ‘slow poison’ behind a curtain while the doctor dispenses dangerous potions and physick to unwitting sick patients in the front of his shop. And by the same artist, ‘Ague and Fever’ (1788) is a highly imaginative grotesque drawing with the two illnesses (‘ague’ indicated shivering fits) personified as weird beasts assailing a sick man huddled over a fireplace while a doctor writes a prescription at a table nearby.

Less well-known than they should be are dentistry cartoons, another fertile ground for satire, as can be seen in Rowlandson’s ‘Transplanting of Teeth’ (1787), in which poor people are paid to have their teeth extracted for implantation into the mouths of the rich. Others include a number by George Cruikshank, such as ‘Tugging at a High [Eye] Tooth’ (1821), in which a patient kicks over the dentist’s table in her agony, and the long sequence ‘The Tooth-Ache’ (1850). Such images may also have influenced ‘Der Hohle Zahn’ (‘The Hollow Tooth’, 1865), a 25-frame colour cartoon with verses beneath it by the German cartoonist and poet Wilhelm Busch. Busch was best known for his children’s book Max und Moritz, published the same year.

'The Cholic' by George Cruikshank. Wellcome Library

‘The Cholic’ by George Cruikshank. Wellcome Library

It was Cruikshank too who engraved ‘The Head Ache’ (1819) and ‘The Cholic’ (1819, left), suggested by his friend the novelist Captain Frederick Marryat (author of Peter Simple, Mr Midshipman Easy and other popular sea stories). In the former drawing a man slumps in a chair holding a useless medicine bottle as five imps beat, screw and burn his head and shout in his ears, while the latter has a dozen or so tiny demons tightening a rope around the waist of a screaming old woman. Later medical cartoons by Cruikshank include ‘The Blue Devils’ (1823), in which tiny creatures surround a man depressed by bills and other burdens; one offers him a razor to cut his throat in his misery while another holds out a hangman’s noose. In ‘Indigestion’ (1825), based on a drawing by Alfred Crowquill, a man is similarly beset by tiny creatures.

These, then, are some colourful examples of the earliest satirical medical drawings and prints held in the Wellcome Library collection. There are many hundreds more, awaiting researchers in pursuit of comic treasures full of biting wit and wonderful artistry.

Dr Mark Bryant was born in Dorset, is a philosophy graduate of the University of London and has a PhD in history from the University of Kent. He has worked as an editor, writer, journalist and exhibition curator. He is the author of several books, including The Dictionary of 20th-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists. Email


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