The Anatomist: Medical Satire in Early Modern Print and Performance

           In contrast to the present day, when the medical profession is held in high regard, the early modern period often witnessed physicians and other medical practitioners as the object of popular ridicule. Cultural arbiters disparaged doctors as overly educated Latinists who could recite from ancient authors like Hippocrates and Galen but lacked any practical knowledge of the body or how to treat patients. Social commentators ridiculed apothecaries who claimed to concoct miracle remedies from exotic ingredients but sold them for high prices to the gullible and desperately ill. Satirists and savants mistrusted barber-surgeons, who wielded sharp, threatening instruments, not only for blood-letting or painful procedures, but also for dismembering and dissecting bodies into pieces for the study of anatomy.

          Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) was a prolific artist who produced hundreds of drawings and prints, most of which ridicule contemporary English society, including members of the medical profession. The series of lively prints displayed in this exhibition are part of a set of limited edition facsimiles entitled Medical Caricatures, published by Medicina Rara in 1971. Most of these prints were originally created as hand-colored etchings, published by Thomas Tegg (1776-1845) of No. 3 Cheapside, London, between 1807 and 1815. In addition to these are related works by William Hogarth (1697-1764) and others, chosen to contextualize the traditions of social criticism in which Rowlandson participated.

          Displayed in cases are books related to the prints, including some editions of Rowlandson’s illustrated books, The English Dance of Death and The Tour of Dr. Syntax, both with poetic texts by William Combe (1742-1823), as well as The Expediton of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (1721-1771).  Also displayed are several early editions of The Anatomist, or, The Sham Doctor, the play by Edward Ravenscroft (ca. 1654-1707) that served as the inspiration for one of Rowlandson’s prints. All of the works in the exhibit serve to illustrate the development of medical satire in print and performance from the 16th to the early 19th century.

Debra Cashion, in collaboration with Elisabeth Barrett, ‘15


Portrait of Thomas Rowlandson

George Henry Harlow, Portrait of Thomas Rowlandson, drawing, National Portrait Gallery, London, 1814



George Henry Harlow (1787-1819) was highly regarded as a portrait painter who produced many portraits of famous actors and actresses, as well as this portrait of Thomas Rowlandson at age of 58, two years after Rowlandson first produced The Tour of Dr. Syntax: In Search of the Picturesque, published by Rudolph Ackermann with verses by William Combe. In this portrait Rowlandson holds a preliminary drawing for an illustration to his popular work. On close inspection, you can see the comical Dr. Syntax, riding crop in hand, with his trusty horse Grizzle.




Death in the Dissecting Room

Thomas Rowlandson, Death in the Dissecting Room, unpublished drawing for the English Dance of Death (facsimile), 1815-1816  

Rowlandson’s depiction of a working anatomy laboratory reflects the popular view of physicians as ghoulish and disrespectful of death. The doctor and his busy staff are conducting at least two dissections, one in the foreground and one in the background, while more bodies await preparation. One female body is callously left lying on the floor, and another still in a bag arrives through the door. The delivery man looks anxiously behind him, suggesting that the new body has been stolen or that the laboratory is operating outside of the law. Skeletons and specimen jars fill the room, and entrails and instruments (including the satirically ubiquitous clyster syringe) clutter the floor. A human skeleton representing Death ambushes the doctor with an arrow, suggesting that the body next in line for the dissection table will be his.