The seventeenth century had medical men and women of all sorts, to suit all conditions and most purses. There were some who were licensed, some not, and some who probably should not have been. There were physicians, all university men; surgeons (or as it was spelt then ‘chirugeons’) who had been trained through an apprenticeship to perform basic surgery, treat injuries and set bones; apothecaries who dispensed drugs to physicians and also attended patients independently; and barber-surgeons, with practical skills in bone-setting, blood-letting and treating minor injuries, but who were men of little learning and generally held in low regard. Finally there were midwives, who learned ‘on the job’ and were licensed by the Diocese on the recommendation of ‘six honest matrons’, their minister and a churchwarden. Rich people could shop around and choose a practitioner of their liking, inside or outside the town, as most covered a wide area. The poor, as always, made do.
In fact, the practitioners who called themselves ‘physicians’ in Hythe were not university men at all, but only licensed surgeons or barber-surgeons. The terminology was loosely applied, and by the end of the century the word ‘doctor’ was generally applied to all medical men.
They offered different services and treatments. Arnold Hall seems to have specialised in providing remedial diets to patients, and also employed nurses to attend the sick. Between 1626 and 1642 he built up an extensive practice covering the Romney Marsh, Cheriton, Alkham and as far afield as Sittingbourne. William Stace, a barber-surgeon at about the same time, let blood and prescribed poultices and potions. When the blacksmith John Gately was taken ill at Rye in 1625, it was Stace he summoned from Hythe to treat him (unsuccessfully as it turned out). James Arthur was licensed as a surgeon in 1635, over the objections of Arnold Hall. Whether the objections were on professional grounds or whether he thought one surgeon in Hythe was enough is not recorded. Arthur practised in the town for nearly fifty years, finding time also to serve as jurat, mayor and churchwarden. Sick people then, as now, sought second opinions. Elias Bassett, during his last illness in 1684, was treated by both James Arthur and Richard Jacob.
Medical men prescribed a range of treatments, nearly all thankfully unfamiliar today. Blood-letting and purges were very popular. So were poultices. In the 1630s, John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law, described how he treated a man with gout: he applied a poultice of mallows, a fomentation of frogspawn and a plaster and purged him with senna powder. One must assume that the placebo effect was at work if any of these treatments relieved the condition.
Medicines were often herbal in origin, perhaps with the addition of opium, and often infused in an alcoholic beverage. Brandy, port wine, beer, cider and ale were all popular, and spices and sweeteners were added for taste and smell. Fumigants were prescribed to banish noxious miasmas. One such, said to drive out plague, was a concoction of brimstone, saltpetre and amber which was ground and burned. The stench may well have been successful in driving rats out of the house, to say nothing of the inmates.
One Hythe surgeon, John Grove, had a most unfortunate record of prescribing. In 1595, two years after he was licensed, he admitted to a court purging Anne Pierce, a widow, with two ounces of diacatholicon, two ounces of diafinicon, and one ounce each of electuarum rosarum and confectio hamech. Each of these mysterious-sounding compounds was a powerful purgative in its own right, and between them they contained antimony, wormwood, prunes, rhubarb root and senna. One medical book of the time suggests six drams, or about a third of an ounce of confectio hamech alone as a purgative to cure any one or all of leprosy, madness, ringworm or scabies. The dose prescribed by Grove was probably enough to purge an elephant, and if the unfortunate patient did not die, she would certainly have been very ill indeed.
Grove’s defence, used by schoolboys across the ages, was that he only did it once. The court took a dim view, said he was ignorant and audacious, fined him five pounds and imprisoned him – but did not remove his licence. He practised thereafter in Hythe, where as surgeon, gentleman, jurat and mayor, he achieved respectability.
Happily, physicians were starting to take a more scientific and empirical approach to investigating the workings of the human body. In 1628, William Harvey, who had been born in Folkestone, just down the road from Hythe, described for the first time the circulation of the blood. Not everyone believed him, though. He said that his medical practice dropped off after his publication because people thought he was mad.