Pathetic Patients

Dropsy Courting Consumption

Thomas Rowlandson, Dropsy Courting Consumption, hand-colored etching, London: Thomas Tegg, 1810.

          During the 18th and 19th centuries certain illnesses became markers of affluence and refinement. Consumption (tuberculosis), was associated with delicate femininity or Romantic sensibility. This print portrays a courting couple, destined for the mausoleum rather than the altar. The anorexic woman represents fashion-foolishness with her flamboyant accessories, including a dainty but impractical fan and extravagant hat.  By contrast her suitor is rotund and swollen from dropsy (kidney disease), which like gout was associated with gluttony and intemperance.  In the background a second couple with reverse dispositions strolls leisurely through the park beneath a statue of Hercules, paragon of physical strength, who earned his way into heaven through hard work.

Monsieur de Pourceaugnac

Francois Joullain after Charles Coypel, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, engraving, originally published 1726, British Museum

          Rabelais helped to establish a French tradition for satirizing the medical profession that continued for generations in various artistic genres. The razor-witted Montaigne (1533-1592) once quipped, “And how many have not escaped dying, who have had three physicians always at their tails?” Molière (1622-1673), the master of French farce, relied on lampooned medicine as a comedic strategy for several plays, including the famous Le malade imaginare, in which a wealthy hypochondriac is enabled by sycophantic doctors. This engraving illustrates a scene from Molière’s Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, in which two mercenary physicians take Monsieur’s pulse to convince him he is sick, while an assistant prepares a clyster syringe, a common device of early modern scatalogical humor.

The Last Gasp or Toadstools Mistaken for Mushrooms

Thomas Rowlandson, The Last Gasp or Toadstools Mistaken for Mushrooms, hand-colored etching, originally published by Thomas Tegg, 1813

          As in Molière’s comedic plays, Rowlandson’s The Last Gasp demonstrates the gullibility of people who depend on quacks.  In the image, a toad-like man and his wife stick out their tongues for a physician who visits them in their finely appointed drawing room. The doctor and his apprentice mimic the grotesque expressions of the patients and stick out their tongues as well. The print proposes that the man’s indiscriminate appetite has led him and his wife to an appropriate fate that the doctor has no skills to prevent. But the mirroring figures also suggest there is no way to tell the practitioners of medicine apart from their patients: whether toadstools or mushrooms, all are equally foolish.

Rabelais Dissecting Society

Gustave Dore, Rabelais Dissecting Society, lithograph illustration to Pantagruel, originally published by J.Bry Ainé, Paris, 1854.

          François Rabelais (ca. 1490-1553), who studied medicine at Paris just a few years before Vesalius, was likely a source of the derisive attacks against medicine addressed in the Fabrica: “we owe the fact that so many scoffs are wont to be cast at doctors, and this most holy art is made a mock.” In Book IV of Pantagruel, Rabelais compares medicine “to a combat and farce played by three personae: the patient, the doctor, and the illness.” In this image by Gustave Dore, Rabelais is portrayed as a scholar studying human figures impaled on pins as if they were butterflies (Lepidoptera). Besides the tome guiding his research, a second book represents a treatise on dissection, propped up against a row of specimen jars with fetuses floating in two of them. 

Pathetic Patients