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A National Health Service: Early Modern Medicine

Medicine in early modern Britain is commonly perceived as crude and ineffective. But for all its shortcomings, says Alun Withey, there was no shortage of medical practitioners.

John Banister, admitted to the company of Barber Surgones in 1572, dissecting the body of a criminalIn September 1717 several JPs and clergymen in Cardigan, West Wales petitioned the Bishop of St Davids to grant a medical licence to one John Jones of Llandysul. Jones, the signatories argued, had ‘apply’d himself to the study of Physick and Chirurgery for several years’ and had ‘performed very good cures in both respects’. Besides stressing his obvious proficiency, the signatories argued that there were ‘few or no profest [sic] Physicians or surgeons in this Country’. This was a fairly common complaint at the time. In supporting licence applications parish authorities often emphasised an apparent lack of medical provision. Downplaying the presence of ‘irregular’ practitioners demonstrated that the parish was keen to support legitimate ones. It also clearly did no harm to the applicant’s chances if it could be proved that medical provision was indeed lacking in that area. Doubtless some such complaints were well-founded. The question is whether contemporary accounts of a dearth of medical care, especially in rural areas, held true for all practitioner types. Were there really ‘few or no’ medical practitioners, especially away from large towns?

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