10 Aug 2019
Where Hogarth brought a fierce skepticism to the topic of English medicine of his time, Thomas Rowlandson was positively brutal in his caricatures of the profession. In this early caricature, for example, Rowlandson represents a gaggle of surgeons pinning a man down to amputate what appears to be a perfectly healthy leg. The terror in his face and the ghoulish enthusiasm of his attendants tells us much about the common experience for patients of medicine in the pre-modern era.
No tourniquet is applied, and the surgeon’s tools spill out at his feet (a femur seems to have found its way into the bag from a previous procedure). The corpse’s body behind the ravenous surgeons tells us much about the likely fate that awaits their patient, just as the list of “examined and approved surgeons” on the wall to the right tells us much about the limited options available to a patient in the late 18th century.
In the Drawing Blood exhibition, two later Rowlandson prints were featured, both drawn from a series entitled The English Dance of Death, which matched verse by William Combe alongside Rowlandson’s caricatures.
In the first, we see the doctor’s ineffective remedies beside a recently deceased young man, around whose bedside his family grieves. The corpulent and insensitive doctor sniffs at his cane’s handle to ward off the stench of death. Behind his back he extends his hand for his payment, unwilling to depart without his fee, despite the uselessness of his treatments. Death guides the doctor to the door and towards an outraged figure waiting for him at the threshold, suggesting the possibility of vengeance to come.
In the second, we focus on the figure of a prosperous apothecary, dispensing medicines for the ailing throng. A patient waiting for his prescription gets a peek behind the curtain of the sleek shop, where he sees Death mixing “slow poison” into the medicines. A dog in the lower left barks ferociously at the exposed figure of Death, but everyone else is too involved in their own complaints—and the hopes they have pinned on the apothecaries concoctions—to even notice. At Death’s feet lie the common medical tools of the day, including a bone saw and a clyster, a reminder that despite the facade of the apothecary’s shop, medicine has little to offer beyond the centuries-old techniques of removing fluids or body parts. The wares on sale here will surely only make things worse, but desperation, pain, and fear drive patients to put their faith in anything—even “slow poison” mixed by Death himself. “I have a secret Art, to cure / Each Malady, which men endure,” the accompanying couplet promises. But we know, as all of Rowlandson’s contemporaries surely should, that the “cure” is truly worse than the disease.
Jared Gardner is a professor and patient at the Ohio State University.