East India Company

The Body Politic: Diseases and Discourses

Roy Porter opens our new series on Picturing History, based on a series of lectures organised in conjunction with Reaktion Books, and shows how 18th-century images of the medical profession flow over into the work of political caricaturists.

Go back a couple of hundred years. How did people think of their bodies and their health? And of their doctors? And in what ways did popular views about these basic life-and-death issues then serve to express wider attitudes, notably political opinions?

The professional position of early modern medics was precarious. Disease and death held sway. Medicine had little power to cure the sick or save the dying and doctors were subject to non-stop vilification. ‘If the world knew the villainy and knavery (beside ignorance) of the physicians and apothecaries’, John Aubrey was told by a doctor, ‘the people would throw stones at ’em as they walked in the streets’. Scepticism ran high. Proverbs warned that death and the doctors were thick as thieves, or at least conducted joint consultations.

Doctors were only in it for their fees. Himself a practitioner, Bernard Mandeville versified this slur in The Fable of the Bees:

Physicians valued Fame and Wealth
Above the drooping Patient’s Health,
Or their own Skill: The greatest Part
Study’d, instead of Rules of Art,
Grave pensive Looks, and dull Behaviour;
To gain th’ Apothecary’s Favour,
The Praise of Mid-wives, Priests and all,
That served at Birth, or Funeral.

Gravest of all was the charge that, by acts of commission or omission, physicians were fatal. Dr Frank Nicholls was asked whether one should consult an old or young physician. ‘The difference’, replied the doctor, is this: ‘The former will kill you, the other will let you die’.

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