Miracle Medicine

Portrait of Andreas Vesalius

Attributed to Jan van Calcar, Portrait of Andreas Vesalius, woodcut, originally published by Johannes Oporinus, 1543

          The great anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) complained about the damaged reputation of medicine in his preface to De Fabrica Corporis Humani. Vesalius blamed the profession itself for abandoning standards deserving of the public trust: “But it was especially after the ruin spread by the Goths, when all the sciences went to ruin, that more fashionable doctors…despising the work of the hand, began to delegate to slaves the manual attentions which they judged needful for their patients, and themselves merely to stand over them like master builders.” In his author portrait from the Fabrica, Vesalius points to the hand of a dissected cadaver, suggesting that physicians should reclaim the territory relegated to barber-surgeons and practice medicine with their hands as well as their diplomas.

 The Enraged Son of Mars and Timid Tonsor

Thomas Rowlandson, The Enraged Son of Mars and Timid Tonsor, hand-colored etching, originally published by Thomas Tegg, 1811

          In The Enraged Son of Mars and Timid Tonsor, Rowlandson criticizes barber-surgeons who can barely offer a safe shave or haircut but claim to have enough skills to treat the sick and injured. The angry customer, a military officer who has removed his sword and hat, reacts angrily to having his face cut while being shaved. On a shelf above the sword and hat is a row of wigs labled for clients of different professions: 'Clarkes Block', 'Parsons Block', 'Docter's Block', 'Lawyers Block.' On the rear wall a small illustration depicts King David’s handsome but arrogant son Absolom, who was killed in battle when caught in a tree by his long hair. The monkey sitting on the table lathering his own head demonstrates that he can easily do the same job as any barber.

Macassar Oil

Thomas Rowlandson, Macassar Oil, an Oily Puff for Soft Heads, hand-colored etching, originally published by Thomas Tegg, 1814

          In Macassar Oil, an apothecary vendor pours oil on a bald man’s head, while a woman behind them looks shocked at the reflection of her hair standing on end.  A sign on the rear wall advertises a miracle product: “Macassar Oil, for the Growth of Hair, is the finest invention ever known for encreasing hair on bald Places, Its virtues are pre-eminent for improving and beautifying the Hair of Ladies and Gentlemen.” Dozens of elixirs and other remedies line the shelves, and the large oil jar suggests products of exotic provenance. A tall fools’ cap with ass’s ears indicates the artist’s opinion of “soft heads” naïve enough to spend money in this shop.

Bath Races

Thomas Rowlandson, Bath Races, hand-colored etching, originally published by Thomas Tegg, 1810


          During the 18th century the city of Bath became a fashionable tourist attraction by reputation of its spas. Fed by geothermal mineral springs, the hot sulfuric water at Bath was alleged to heal a variety of illnesses and infirmities. “Taking the waters” was especially recommended by doctors for the treatment of gout, a disease associated with an immoderate diet of rich food and wine. In Bath Races, Rowlandson caricatures a group of people crippled by gout and other ailments, hysterically heading for the baths near the River Avon to seek a magic cure rather than admitting to the excesses of their own lifestyles. The buildings at the top of the hill are part of the Royal Crescent residences designed by John Wood in the 18th century, where today the luxury Royal Crescent Hotel is still in business.

Miracle Medicine