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Posts Tagged ‘apothecary’

Caricatures from the late 18th- early 19th century always pique my interest. In this instance, Rowlandson’s apothecary (1801) is praying deeply. But what for? Skills to heal more efficiently and better, or for a slew of customers whose illnesses will help fill his coffers with lucre?

Knowing Rowlandson’s outrageous penchant for irony, I am willing to bet it is the latter. So I entered a few phrases into my trusty Google search bar and found this cached explanation of the prayer:

A prayer with a mischievous aim: This example is a sarcastic Apothecary’s Prayer, which was accompanied by a Thomas Rowlandson caricature. 12

“Oh mighty Esculapius! Hear a poor little man overwhelm’d with misfortunes, grant I beseech thee to send a few smart Fevers and some obstinate Catarrhs amongst us or thy humble supplicant must shut up shop…”

“and if it would please thee to throw in a few Cramps and Agues, it would greatly help thy miserable servant, for on the word of an apothecary, I have scarcely heard the music of Mortar these two month…”

“Physic those, I beseech thee, that will not encourage our profession, and blister their evil intentions, viz, such as their cursed new-invented waterproof…”

This was a weatherproof material which was expected to keep the wearer dry and hence free from colds and coughs and other diseases. – Wright, David. Some Prayers and Oaths from the History of Medicine, cached page.

The entire prayer:

O mighty Esculapius! hear a poor little man overwhelm’d with misfortunes, grant I beseech thee to send a few smart Fevers and some obstinate Catarrhs amongst us, or thy humble supplicant must shut up shop–and if it should please thee to throw in a few Cramps and Agues it would greatly help thy miserable servant, for on the word of an Apothecary I have scarcely heard the music of Mortar these two months.

Take notice also, I beseech thee, of the mournful situation of my neighbour, Crape the Undertaker, who suffers considerably by my want of practice, and loses many a job of my cutting out; enable him to bear his misfortunes with philosophy, and to look forward with new hope for the tolling of the bell.

Physic those, I beseech thee, that will not encourage our protection, and Blister their evil intentions, viz. such as their cursed new-invented waterproof; and may all the coats be eaten by the rats that are so made: But pour down the Balm of Gilead on the Overseers of the village, and all the Friends of Galen.

May it please thee to look over my book of bad debts with an eye of compassion, and increase my neighbours’ infirmities; give additional twinges to the Rector’s Gout, and our worthy Curate’s Rheumatism; but above all, I beseech thee to take under thy special the Lady of Squire Handy, for should the child prove an heir, and thy humble servant so fortunate as to bring the young gentleman handsomely into the world, it may be the means of raising me to the highest pinnacle of fortune.

I looked up the word Galen. He was the physician who succeeded Hippocrates and who described cancer as an excessive black bile.  Until the 17th century it was believe that the bile coursed throughout the entire body. Even if a tumor was removed, the black bile remained to create more tumors. Not a nice prayer, n’est-ce pas?

More on the topic:

Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London
An apothecary praying for a host of illnesses to descend on his customers so that he can make more money. Coloured etching by T. Rowlandson, 1801, after G.M. Woodward.
Coloured etching and text 1801 By: George Moutard Woodward after: Thomas Rowlandson
Published: R. Ackermann,[London] (101 Strand) :  30 July 1801
Printed: [E.] Spragg)(London :
Size: border 18.7 x 23 cm.
Collection: Iconographic Collections
Library reference no.: ICV No 11040
Full Bibliographic Record Link to Wellcome Library Catalogue

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK: England & Wales, see http://images.wellcome.ac.uk/indexplus/page/Prices.html
Previous Ref: D5459/2/146

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Gentle Reader, next week Austenprose will begin a Pride and Prejudice extravaganza entitled, Pride and Prejudice Without Zombies. The group will be reading Jane Austen’s own words. Not some mash up. Not a sequel. And, as far as I am concerned, my favorite book of all time. When Laurel Ann asked me to contribute my thoughts during the event, I was already researching information about Mr. Jones, the apothecary who treated Jane Bennet. So, as a pre-announcement, I am publishing this post. Do obtain a copy of Pride and Prejudice and join Laurel Ann and her readers as she begins her in-depth analysis of the book on Tuesday, June 16th.

Jane is sick, Netherfield Hall, Pride and Prejudice 2005

In 1813, the year that Pride and Prejudice was finally published, apothecaries filled an important role in rural areas where physicians were scarce. When Jane Bennet fell ill at Netherfield Park, Mr. Jones, the apothecary was sent for:

Breakfast was scarcely over when a servant from Netherfield brought the following note for Elizabeth:

“My dearest Lizzy,

I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning home till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me and excepting a sore throat and head-ache, there is not much the matter with me.

Yours, &c.”

Unlike a physician, whose social standing ranked high, apothecaries were considered one step up from a tradesmen, and several rungs below the physician/doctor.


This cartoon by James Gillray suggests that the Cockney in question is an apothecary. Note the mortar and pestle symbol on the side of the carriage.

Apothecaries learned how to make drugs and poultices during their tenure as apprentices. They used their hands and labored in shops, and were often the only alternative for people who sought medical care and who could not afford a doctor’s fees. Interestingly, apothecaries were not paid for giving advice or providing medical treatment. They were paid only for the drugs they sold.

Apothecary Shop, Glasgow Looking Glass

Mr. Jones, would have traveled to Netherfield Hall and dispensed his advice without recompense. But he recommended his draughts, which enabled him to earn some money, and instructed Elizabeth on how to use them:

The apothecary came and having examined his patient said as might be supposed that she had caught a violent cold and that they must endeavor to get the better of it advised her to return to bed and promised her some draughts. The advice was followed readily for the feverish symptoms increased and her head ached acutely.

Visiting an ill Jane at Netherfield, Pride and Prejudice 2005

Mrs. Bennet’s ploy to keep Jane at Netherfield, using Mr. Jones as an excuse when Mr. Bingley inquires about Jane’s condition, worked:

“Indeed I have, Sir,” was her answer. “She is a great deal too ill to be moved. Mr. Jones says we must not think of moving her. We must trespass a little longer on your kindness.”

Mr. Bennet used Mrs. Bennet’s machinations to his advantage, demonstrating his wit even as he admonished his wife for placing Jane in danger:

“Well, my dear,” said Mr. Bennet, when Elizabeth had read the note aloud, “if your daughter should have a dangerous fit of illness, if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders.”

“Oh! I am not at all afraid of her dying. People do not die of little trifling colds. She will be taken good care of. As long is she stays there, it is all very well. I would go and see her, if I could have the carriage.”

As an interesting aside, one of the 3rd Earl of Stanhope’s third daughter’s eloped with the family apothecary, prompting James Gillray to draw the cartoon, Democratic Levelling: Alliance a la Francaise, The Union of the Coronet and Clyster Pipe. (A coronet is a small crown symbolizing a peer’s status and a clyster pipe was a tube used for injections). The earl was a great proponent of liberty and revolution, but this marriage sorely tested his tolerance for equality! One wonders what Mr. Bennet might have said had Jane or Lizzie run off with Mr. Jones!

At the turn of the 19th century, the practice of medicine would benefit from rapid scientific advances brought about by methodical and well-reasoned experimentation and observations. But at the height of Thomas Rowland’s and James Gillray’s satiric powers, doctors, surgeons, and apothecaries were still targets of fun. The medical field also did not fare well with popular opinion.

The Comforts of Bath, Rowlandson. At the end of the 18th Century, Bath had more doctors and apothecaries per number of citizens than any city in England.

The following humorous scene between a doctor and an author sums up the popular perception of a doctor’s swelled head. His miniscule knowledge about medicine does not detract from his exalted opinion of his social standing in relation to an apothecary’s. This passage emphasizes the point that the medical field took a back seat to poetry and criticism:

Doctor: I suppose, Sir, you are his apothecary.

Gent: Sir, I am his friend.

Doctor: I doubt it not. What regimen have you observed since he has been under your care? You remember, I suppose, the passage in Celsus, which says, “if the patient on the third day have an interval, suspend the medicaments at night. Let fumigations be used to corroborate the brain.” I hope you have upon no account promoted slernutation by hellebore.

Gent:  Sir, you mistake the matter quite.

Doctor: What! an apothecary tell a physician he mistakes! You pretend to dispute my prescription! Pharmacopola componant. Medicus folus prefabricat. Fumigate him, I say, this very evening, while he is relieved by an interval’

Dennis: Death, Sir, do you take my friend for an apothecary! A man of genius and learning for an apothecary! Know, Sir, that this gentleman professes, like myself, the two noblest sciences in the universe, criticism and poetry. By the immortals, he himself is author of three whole paragraphs in my Remarks, had a hand in my Public Spirit, and assisted me in my description of the furies and infernal regions in my Appius.

(The discussion continues.) Then the doctor says:

Doctor: He must use the cold bath, and be cupped on the head. The symptoms seem desperate. Avicen says: “If learning be mixed with a brain that is not of a contexture fit to receive it, the brain ferments till it be totally exhausted. We must endeavour to eradicate these indigested ideas out of the perieranium, and to restore the patient to a competent knowledge of himself. – Elegant Extracts, or Useful Entertaining Passages

Consultation of Physicians, Hogarth

Physicians occupied the top rung of the medical social ladder because they did not “soil” their hands by treating the patient directly, as a surgeon would. They did not accept money in public (the payment would have been made discreetly). These “learned” men attended university but did not perform autopsies or dissect cadavres. Men of breeding, they merely sat back and watched the procedure from afar.

Apothecary shop, 1719

An apothecary shop during Jane Austen’s day was much like today’s drug store, where a customer could purchase drugs, herbs, poultices, panaceas, and other medicinals. In the image from 1st Art Gallery, one can see the preparations and infusions being made in an 18th century apothecary shop. Herbs grew in an adjacent garden and substances were stored in apothecary jars and drawers. Such shops also sold surgical equipment. In this link one can view an apothecary shop in Colonial Williamsburg, much as a similar shop might have looked in Meryton.

18th century apothecary bottles made with mercury glass

Apothecaries were often the only doctors available in a rural community, and they would take their supplies with them in portable apothecary box. Mr. Jones, Jane Bennet’s apothecary, must have dispensed his solutions from a similar box.

Apothecary box

By the mid-19th century, the medical field changed drastically, including the pharmaceutical field, and medications and medical practices  began to actually heal patients with predictable success. In 1895, the Pharmaceutical Journal wrote what might well be an eulogy for apothecaries:

You are all familiar in one way or another with the apothecary of the last century. A gloomy little man in a gloomy little shop with a gloomy little helper. What mystery there was surrounding every step!  His weird work with flame and flask mortar pestle and still! … These were pioneers in our profession and all honour is due them.

My further discussions about medicine in the 19th century can be found in three posts I have written on the topic:

More on the topic of medicine in Jane Austen’s day in these links:

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As I noted in an earlier review of Cranford, the plot of this Elizabeth Gaskell adaptation revolves around change. Episode Three, to be aired on PBS this Sunday, carries this point further. The two physicians, one of the old school and one trained with new techniques, his head filled with knowledge of the latest medical advances, take center stage as they try to save their patients from the dreaded diseases that rarely afflict civilized society today: croup, whooping cough, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever. Young Dr. Harrison redeems himself time and again by applying new solutions to old problems, thereby saving patients who would not have survived their ordeal with traditional remedies.

In Jane Austen’s time, or the early part of the 19th century, there was a clear distinction between a doctor, surgeon, and apothecary. Doctors were gentlemen of the old school and deemed socially acceptable. They were often invited to dine with the families they treated, or spend the night as guests.

Doctors and physicians occupied the highest rung on the social ladder. Such citizens were considered gentleman because 1) their training did not include apprenticeship and 2) the profession excluded, supposedly, manual labor. Doctors were permitted to dine with the family during home visits, while other practitioners took dinner with the servants. A physician’s fee was wrapped and placed nearby, for theoretically gentleman did not accept money for their work.

Illustration of Lecture Hall from the Glasgow Looking Glass, 1825-1826

A young man embarking on a medical career would attend a prestigious school at Cambridge and Oxford. There he would study Greek and Latin, and, rather than practice on patients, he would observe medical procedures in a lecture hall. Chances were that he received his license without ever having any clinical experience at all.

Cartoonists and satirists, such as Hogarth and Rowlandson, showed little mercy towards doctors and their poor attempts at treating patients. Even the life-saving vaccine for small pox was treated with some humor and derision by James Gilray, since the innoculant came from a cow.

The Cow Pock, James Gillray, 1802

Accepted practices of the day did not include washing hands or changing soiled clothes or bandages, so that doctors often spread illnesses or caused infections. Bleeding through cutting or leeches was an accepted form of treatment:

The most common way of treating a high fever, for example, was to cut open a vein and drain blood from the patient — and not in a small way: a good doctor was expected to cut deep enough that the patient’s blood would spurt into the air with every heartbeat! To make matters worse, the most commonly prescribed “drug” of the time was the toxic element mercury, usually in the form of mercuric chloride.

Surgery was extremely painful, and anesthesia in the form of ether did not appear until 1846. Until that time, doctors relied on mandrake, alcohol, opium, and cannabis for pain relief. (Cocaine was only available in the New World.) Non drug methods of pain relief included cooling the patient or affected area, hypnosis, nerve compression, and blood letting. Because surgeons actually treated the patient by performing physical labor – a trade, so to speak – they occupied a lower rung on the social ladder.

Apothecaries, who learned their profession through apprenticeship and who were definitely considered to be in “trade”, ranked even lower on the social scale. As a group they had “seceded from the Worshipful Company of Grocers, and were incorporated as a separate city livery company in 1617, were supposed to stay in their shops and dispense the prescriptions written by the physicians.” [Apothecaries, Physicians and Surgeons, Roger Jones]

In regions where doctors were scarce, apothecaries also made house calls and treated patients, but largely they mixed drugs and dispensed them, and trained apprentices. A drug’s efficaciousness was hit or miss. By sheer accident, some effective substances were discovered: digitalis, quinine, and calamine, to name several; and a number of proven herbal remedies helped to relieve symptoms. Generally, however,

The technology of making drugs was crude at best: Tinctures, poultices, soups, and teas were made with water- or alcohol-based extracts of freshly ground or dried herbs or animal products such as bone, fat, or even pearls, and sometimes from minerals best left in the ground—mercury among the favored. The difference between a poison and a medicine was a hazy differentiation at best: In the 16th century, Paracelsus declared that the only difference between a medicine and a poison was in the dose. All medicines were toxic. It was cure or kill.

The life of a country doctor was an itinerant one. The 1999 mini-series Wives and Daughters aptly depicted a doctor’s long day, in which he rose at dawn to make his rounds and see patients, often returning exhausted past sunset on his equally weary horse.


Illustration, George du Maurier, 1913

By the end of the 19th century, the medical field had become more professional and organized. Scientific breakthroughs, which included anesthesia, rabies vaccinations, techniques for immunization, sterilization of medical equipment, and an understanding of the origins of infections and of the bacterial world, helped to move the field forward.

Find more links below about medicine during this era:

Images: Photo stills from Cranford and Sense and Sensibility (bleeding Marianne Dashwood); James Gillray cartoons

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