Protection from the Tyranny of Treatment: Natasha McEnroe Shows That a New Exhibition Provides Insights into Both Medical and Sexual Practices in the Eighteenth Century

By McEnroe, Natasha | History Today, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Protection from the Tyranny of Treatment: Natasha McEnroe Shows That a New Exhibition Provides Insights into Both Medical and Sexual Practices in the Eighteenth Century


McEnroe, Natasha, History Today


WOULD DR JOHNSON have raised an eyebrow at some of the items currently on display in his Dictionary Garret? This autumn's exhibition at Dr Johnson's House--The Tyranny of Treatment: Samuel Johnson, His Friends and Georgian Medicine--illustrates the physical problems suffered by the great Doctor and five of his friends, and the various treatments that they underwent in their search for health.

Dominating the display, the death mask of Johnson's head and shoulders shows the facial distortion caused by his own final series of strokes. A beautiful late-Georgian domestic medicine chest on loan from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society would remind him of his friend Mrs Thrale's fondness for self-diagnosis and treatment. This was a practice that he himself followed towards the end of his life, boldly letting his own blood and draining fluid from his painfully swollen legs and testicles. A couching needle of the type used to operate on Miss Williams's cataracts, and a pair of glasses belonging to Sir Joshua Reynolds, would have reminded him of his friends' infirmities. Johnson, however; never read his young friend Fanny Burney's gruesome account of her radical mastectomy without anesthetic, as this operation took place more than twenty years after his death in 1784.

A less respectable object is found in the section on Johnson's friend and biographer, James Boswell. This incredibly rare survival is a condom made of sheep-gut, on loan from the Royal College of Surgeons. Dating from the 1790s, it is a reminder of Boswell's sexual activities and the widespread fear of infection from venereal disease.

The use of condoms in the eighteenth century seems to have been regarded as disreputable, and they are only seen in prints illustrating brothels and prostitutes. It is likely that, instead, married women would use early abortion as a method of contraception, and books of household management frequently had recipes for potions using herbs such as rue designed to 'bring on the courses'. In London, condoms could be procured from Mrs Philips, Mrs Perkins or Mrs Lewis. Mrs Philips was perhaps the most famous, and could be found at the Green Canister in Half Moon Street. Perhaps it was only coincidence that Boswell stayed at lodgings in Half Moon Street in 1768 during a trip to London prior to his marriage. A handbill of 1796 proudly states that Mrs Philips had thirty-five years of experience of selling sheaths.

The disadvantages of the animal-gut condoms were many. Several times the thickness of a modern condom, they cannot have been easy or pleasant to use. Imported from France, they were expensive and therefore had to be reused. They were difficult to store, as they had to be kept in water to ensure that they remained soft enough to use. Boswell writes of the difficulty he had in concealing from his maid the condom that he had placed in a jar of water, kept ready for use.

The primary reason for using a condom was the fear of contracting venereal disease. Boswell first contracted gonorrhea while in his teens, possibly from his first sexual experience with a London prostitute, and was to have many other occurrences and reinfections until his death in 1795. …

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Protection from the Tyranny of Treatment: Natasha McEnroe Shows That a New Exhibition Provides Insights into Both Medical and Sexual Practices in the Eighteenth Century
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