‘The last remedy God has left him’: medicine in the 18th century

Today’s blog from Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the Lords 1715-1790 Section is in keeping with our theme, health, medicine and Parliament. This theme is particularly significant this month as last week in the UK we celebrated 70 years of the National Health Service. Robin considers medication and wellness practices in the eighteenth century…

In the summer of 1726, the Princess of Wales wrote to her confidante, Mrs Clayton, passing on the news of the death of the duchess of Shrewsbury: ‘the poor duchess’, she complained, ‘is soon destroy’d, it is the glorious work of Sir J[ohn] Shadwell’. Shadwell, son of the playwright, poet laureate and historiographer royal, Thomas Shadwell, was a celebrated royal physician, who had first been appointed to the royal household as an extra physician to the person in 1709. Three years later, he was promoted physician to the person. The duchess had relied on Shadwell’s services for some time. In the summer of 1718 she had believed herself to be dying and had nominated Shadwell her executor (it was reported that he stood to gain £800 from her demise). On this occasion she rallied. Now he was summoned in response to the duchess complaining of stomach pains and prescribed something to ease the symptoms. When that failed to have the desired effect, he took the decision to add a large dose of laudanum on top of the initial remedy, ‘which laid her asleep for this world’ [RA, GEO/ADD/28/062].

Such an error in prescribing in an age when, in spite of growing professionalism and the rich rewards available to elite physicians, medicine enjoyed a rather mixed reputation may not come as much of a surprise. It is a reminder, though, of a distressingly frequent theme in the lives (and deaths) of many of the characters covered by the History – substantial numbers of whom died prematurely whether through their own misadventure or the mistaken ministrations of their doctors.

Of course, sometimes the remedies worked – or at least did no obvious harm. In December 1737 Bishop Hough of Worcester reported how a ‘violent pain in his right arm’ had been cured thanks to a dose of laudanum. For some, a psychological stimulus seems to have done the trick. In April 1705 he duchess of Beaufort insisted to Charles, Lord Bruce that the pleasure of his letter had ‘proved a better medicine than any’ her resident physician was able to prescribe her current malady. By contrast, in the summer of 1700 Sidney Godolphin, Lord Godolphin, insisted that the sheer terror of taking the medicine sent him by Bishop of Moore of Norwich had ‘frighted away the rheume from my eyes’ without recourse to testing the potion.

If all else failed, many sought relief in the waters of Bath, Tunbridge Wells or spa towns overseas. In 1720 the apparently fast declining Lord St John (presumably William, Lord St John of Bletso) was readied for a journey to Bath, his doctor insisting that ‘It is the last remedy God has left him’ (he did not survive). Bishop Reynolds informed Archbishop Wake that if he got no relief ‘by the warm weather and Fuller’s medicine’ his friends intended to despatch him to Bath too.

The proliferation of newspapers in the century perhaps inevitably spawned a large number of people, genuine and not so genuine, seeking to sell a variety of patent remedies through the classified advertisements sections. In 1775 Elizabeth Rogers, a bookseller, announced that as well as books she was able to sell ‘Ward’s medicine by appointment’ and among other things also stocked ‘Herring’s Norfolk antidote for the bite of a mad dog and other mad animals’.

With such a large number of drugs, lotions and potions easily available, some appear to have opted to self-medicate rather than trust to the dubious talents of their physician. In some cases the results were tragic. In 1739 William Craven, 3rd Lord Craven, was reported to have ‘unhappily precipitated his death by eagerly taking too great a quantum of a medicine, which had in due proportions afforded him great relief; and which carried him off in about four hours time.’ [London Daily Post & General Advertiser, 20 Aug. 1739]. At about the same time as Craven’s unhappy accidental overdose, Sir John Shadwell once again appeared in the papers. Shadwell had been living in Italy for some time and was now called in to assist Lord Charles Fitzroy, a younger son of the 2nd duke of Grafton. Once again, the result was unhappy and Fitzroy did not recover.

Shadwell was in many regards a successful physician and it would be unjust to imply that any other medical man of the time would have fared any better. Rather, his career points to several features of medicine in the period: the reliance on opiates such as laudanum; the tendency to trust to measures that would ‘quieten the humours’ and the vast confidence in foreign travel and spa waters in treating the sick. Shadwell also demonstrates the curious imbalance in the attitude to medicine. Medical men might be trusted as executors of complicated estates and feted as fashionable celebrities in their own right. The social and financial rewards were also potentially great. This is indicated by the fact that while only a handful of physicians made it into Parliament in the period (for example John Freind, Charles Cotes and Charles Oliphant) many more MPs had physicians for fathers (the best known example being Henry Addington, whose father was physician to William Pitt the Elder). Nevertheless, theirs remained a somewhat mysterious profession, and beyond the respectability of the Royal College of Physicians, the world of medicine was easily infiltrated by bootleggers and by others intent on preying on the credulous.

Following the death of the duchess of Shrewsbury, the newspapers published the key provisions of her will, clearly altered since the draft of 1718, revealing among other things that Shadwell was no longer an executor and that his bequest had been reduced to £200. On the death of George I the following year he was not continued in post as a royal physician. Shadwell died at Bath, appropriately enough, in January 1747 and was buried in the abbey.


Further Reading:

  • Extracts from the letter of the Princess of Wales to Mrs Clayton are courtesy of the digitized papers from the Royal Archives, Windsor (http://gpp.royalcollection.org.uk), (c) HM Queen Elizabeth II
  • W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter, eds., William Hunter and the Eighteenth-Century Medical World (1985)
  • For more on early modern medicine see Dr Jennifer Evans and Dr Sara Read’s blog, Early Modern Medicine: https://earlymodernmedicine.com/


One thought on “‘The last remedy God has left him’: medicine in the 18th century

  1. One of the popular cures for all sorts of ailments in about 1745 was “tarwater.” There is a long article discussing it in the Gentleman’s Magazine of that year, but I haven’t been able to discover exactly what the source of the “tar” may have been. Coal tar, or anything of a petroleum base would have been dangerous, but if–as may be–the source was pine tar, or pine pitch, the cures ascribed to it may not be too farfetched.

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