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Protection from the Tyranny of Treatment

Natasha McEnroe shows that a new exhibition provides insights into both medical and sexual practices in the eighteenth century.

Would Dr Johnson have raised an eyebrow at some of the items currently on display in his Dictionary Garret? This autumn’s exhibition at Dr Johnson’s House – The Tyranny of Treatment: Samuel Johnson, His Friends and Georgian Medicine – illustrates the physical problems suffered by the great Doctor and five of his friends, and the various treatments that they underwent in their search for health.

Dominating the display, the death mask of Johnson’s head and shoulders shows the facial distortion caused by his own final series of strokes. A beautiful late-Georgian domestic medicine chest on loan from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society would remind him of his friend Mrs Thrale’s fondness for self-diagnosis and treatment. This was a practice that he himself followed towards the end of his life, boldly letting his own blood and draining fluid from his painfully swollen legs and testicles. A couching needle of the type used to operate on Miss Williams’s cataracts, and a pair of glasses belonging to Sir Joshua Reynolds, would have reminded him of his friends’ infirmities. Johnson, however, never read his young friend Fanny Burney’s gruesome account of her radical mastectomy without anesthetic, as this operation took place more than twenty years after his death in 1784.

A less respectable object is found in the section on Johnson’s friend and biographer, James Boswell. This incredibly rare survival is a condom made of sheep-gut, on loan from the Royal College of Surgeons. Dating from the 1790s, it is a reminder of Boswell’s sexual activities and the widespread fear of infection from venereal disease.

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