Doctors - all over royalty like a rash

Laurence Scales introduces seven doctors who cared for royalty, and were also members of Ri.

  • Albert, Prince Consort, on his deathbed at Windsor Castle

    Prince Albert on his deathbed at Windsor Castle

    Credit: Wellcome Images

The list of names in Queen Victoria’s medical retinue alone seems long enough to minister to a small town. It appears in Royal Poxes & Potions: Royal Doctors & Their Secrets by Raymond Lamont-Brown. In the book I counted 19 of the royal medics who also crop up in the historic Ri membership. Scroll through the image gallery below to meet seven of interest.

  • henry holland

    Sir Henry Holland (1788-1873), in his seventies, was called in by Queen Victoria to save her beloved husband, Prince Albert, who was dying, apparently, of typhoid. We little expect early Victorian doctors to offer care beyond an appropriately deferential bedside manner. Victoria’s own faith was not echoed by statesman Lord Clarendon who declared that Holland and a colleague were ‘not fit to attend a sick cat.’ Holland failed Albert. He was more of an asset to the Ri and became its president. Apart from medicine he had a keen interest in travel and geology. He had sailed in 1819 to Iceland. As a result he penned Diseases of the Icelanders. Holland reintroduced ‘crusts’ (of pustules) for smallpox vaccination on the island.

    Credit: Wellcome images

  • William withey gull

    Sir William Withey Gull (1816-1890) attended another case of typhoid in the royal family in 1871, this time the Prince of Wales. He later became Victoria’s ‘physician-in-ordinary’, or general practitioner in palace-speak. In the medical textbooks Gull is noted for describing and naming the distressing condition Anorexia Nervosa. He also had an association with ‘Eddy’, the Duke of Clarence. Sensational claims have been made that Eddy was Jack the Ripper - or that Gull was. The latter claim seems unlikely given that Gull was old and had suffered two strokes. He died in 1890. But we are dealing with conspiracy theories here. Did he really die in 1890?

    Credit: Wellcome images

  • Gutta percha

    In 1855 Edwin Truman (1818-1905) began a 50 year stint as dentist to the royal household. He was a particular expert in using gutta percha, a rubbery substance still in use today as the tooth equivalent of a sticking plaster.  It was Truman’s good fortune to be interested in gutta percha just when telegraph cables were being wound around the globe. It was good for insulating cables. The transatlantic telegraph of 1858 was a grand project but also a spectacular failure, resulting from defects both in the wire and the insulation. But in 1860 Truman found a way to work the gutta percha to improve its properties, and became an unsung but significant contributor to the communications revolution.

    Credit: Collecting gutta percha from tree trunk. Wellcome images

  • Lister

    Joseph Lister (1827-1912) is a curious figure. On one hand he is the great pioneer of antiseptic surgery. On the other, a curious photograph shows a patient surrounded by people in their everyday clothes, the theatre of surgery furnished (but for the spray) not unlike some seedy hotel room. Lister, himself, is reported to have worn for an operation, well into the carbolic spray era, a blue frock coat stiff and putrid from the spattered bodily fluids of his patients.

    Credit: Wellcome images

  • Treves

    In his reminiscences Sir Frederick Treves (1853-1923) looked back abashed at his own crusty frock coat that he had worn proudly 50 years before. He was a specialist in abdominal surgery, called in when, days before his coronation in 1902, Edward VII developed an acute abdominal inflammation. Accounts differ as to whether Edward submitted to surgery on the billiard table or elsewhere. Treves was also the Good Samaritan who rescued Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, from persecution and humiliation.

    Credit: Wellcome images

  • Bertrand Dawson

    George V’s medical team was the first to boast a royal bacteriologist, Harold Spitta (1877-1954). The king had a series of infections, amenable to analysis and targeting by some early antibacterial drugs. George V died in 1936 after a steady decline in health, finally bumped off by the royal doctor Lord Dawson of Penn (1864-1945) just in time to catch the morning papers.

    Credit: Bertrand Dawson, Wellcome images

Laurence Scales is a volunteer working with the Ri Heritage and Collections team. He also leads unique and eclectic London tours focused on the curious history of discovery, invention, medicine and intelligence.  He is a graduate in engineering and has worked in various technological industries.

Find out more on his website, and follow him on twitter: @LWalksLondon

Latest Posts