Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Who Were His Peers? the Social and Professional Milieu of the Provincial Surgeon-Apothecary in the Late-Eighteenth Century

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Who Were His Peers? the Social and Professional Milieu of the Provincial Surgeon-Apothecary in the Late-Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt

Thirty years ago, Ian Inkster argued "individuals who proclaimed medicine as their occupation were likely to be concerned with the complex and changing problem of their own social identity," but charting the identity of medical practitioners as individuals or. collectively has subsequently proved a tricky business. (2) There is piecemeal anecdotal evidence for lines of distinction drawn between individual doctors and the elite, particularly in the context of London, but what of the informal markers set down between less illustrious medical men and their professional rivals, or their heterogeneous patients, in the provinces? (3) Irvine Loudon has confirmed that we may know who a surgeon-apothecary's customers were, but has asked "who were his social equals"? He assumed that the actual or imagined presence of the shop counter meant that he may have found it hard to escape the taint of trade but that home visiting put him more on a par with his patients (requiring therefore a good horse). (4) Burnby has demonstrated that apothecaries were not socially ostracised in mid-eighteenth-century England, but concluded that "the delicate drawing away of skirts from anything that smacked of retail trade was in full swing by 1800." (5) Steve King has emphasised that practitioners in this period were anxious to convert their professional relationships into social contacts, stressing the ways this might be done (attentive home visits, or invitations to generous home entertainments), and presumably these sorts of efforts would have had to intensify if Burnby is right about the timing of social withdrawal. (6)

In examining these questions for the eighteenth-century middling sort more broadly, there is only consensus on the difficulty of defining the social position of the subsets of them represented in contemporary sources. The presence of a middling sort in English society, so widely acknowledged by contemporaries, defies identification except by reference to its fluidity and contingency, the multiplicity of fracture lines that separated groups, and the diversity of forces that periodically encouraged people to cohere. Identification of groups of middling people typically starts with occupational labels and incomes, traverses allied financial details including rate-paying, but then spreads across various cultural territories including educational background, material consumption, sociability, devotional allegiance, charity work, political activity, office-holding, or the expression of personal values such as gentility. Money, mediated by aspects of lived experience (most crucially, perhaps, by gender), has provided historians with the basis of their engagements with the problematic middling sort. (7) The collection of essays edited by Barry and Brooks in 1994 was a self-styled attempt to draw together scholarship on the middling from researchers who, cautiously at first and then more confidently, had challenged Hexter's dismissal of the rising middling sort in England. (8) The problem with these engagements collectively over the last fifteen years or so, though, has been their rather fitful advancement of the cartography of the middling. Steady publications in the later 1990s have been carried forward in the 2000s by Henry French and relatively few others thus far. It is as though the very indeterminacy of the middling has latterly hobbled exploration of their identities, despite reassurances that identity per se was not endlessly diverse, and may well have exhibited core elements. (9) Hannah Barker has suggested that middling masculinity, for example, might possess key features that span the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. (10)

The attempt to define social place, for surgeon-apothecaries in general or for one practitioner in particular, is unlikely to benefit from explicit statements of social evaluation. (11) In the absence of evidence about "the ways in which ordinary people apply, and have applied, social categories to themselves and others," the attempt to position people might plausibly be informed by one of two models. …

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