Hippocratic Hypocrites

The Company of Undertakers

William Hogarth, The Company of Undertakers, engraving, originally published 1736

          In The Company of Undertakers, Hogarth parodies the theme of medicine as a “noble” profession by creating a phony coat of arms emblazoned with the heads of physicians, all holding to their noses an attribute of their profession, a cane filled at the end with a medicinal sachet to cleanse foul vapors in the air.  Using the official parlance of British heraldry, the caption describes the shield as “Beareth sable, an Urinal proper, between 12 Quack-Heads of the second and 12 Cane Heads Or, Consultant.” The title of the print is a deliberate misnomer, reinforced by the crossbones near the bottom and the motto, “Et plurima mortis imago,” or “and most an image of death.”

A Visit to the Doctor

Thomas Rowlandson, A Visit to the Doctor, hand-colored etching, originally published by Thomas Tegg, 1809

          A Visit to the Doctor describes an appointment with a physician who could have belonged to Hogarth’s Company of Undertakers. He lives the lifestyle of a nobleman and receives patients in a well-appointed study attended by a footman.  The bust of Galen on the mantel and the elegant bookcase suggest he is overly-learned and out of touch with reality. The patients are simple folks who have been led to believe they should seek his advice. Although he should send these healthy people away, the doctor sees an opportunity for a fee: “You eat well—you drink well and you sleep well—very good— You was perfectly right in coming to me, for depend upon it I will give you something that shall do away all these things.” 

Mrs. Harlowe as Beatrice

Richard Cooper, Mrs. Harlowe as Beatrice, from The Anatomist, or The Sham Doctor, engraving, originally published by John Cawthorne, 1807

          The popular theme of the quack physician became a staple for playwrights such the English playwright Edward Ravenscroft (ca. 1654-1707). Today this author of the Restoration period (1660-1710) is relatively unknown, but his farce The Anatomist or The Sham Doctor, once enjoyed great success both on stage and in multiple editions in print. From the first production in 1696 it was performed regularly at Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields until well into the nineteenth century. Its longevity relied on stereotypes developed by Molière, such as the wise and sensible maid-servant Beatrice, portrayed in Rowlandson’s time by Sarah Harlowe (1765-1852), famous for her comedic roles.

Doctor Drainbarrel

Thomas Rowlandson, Doctor Drainbarrel, hand-colored etching, originally published by Thomas Tegg, 1810

          Doctor Drainbarrel, “conveyed home in order to take his trial for neglect of family duty,” depicts an inebriated doctor unwillfully collected from a country ale house.  Pushed in a wheel barrel by a servant with a roving eye, he is followed by his angry wife who doesn’t know her dress has revealed her attributes. The situation forewarns that she has other opportunities if her husband neglects her. A rooster with a flock of chickens imitates the wife’s gesture, as if to say that he knows how to be a better husband than the doctor does. A church included in the background landscape suggests that the doctor should be attending church instead of idling away his time at the pub.

Hippocratic Hypocrites