Second Battle Of Virginia Capes. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Bad Blood and Indecent Expressions

By Matthew DeCloedt

Standing before the Jamaican government’s ‘Councill’ in the spring of 1689, an unnamed doctor explained how comments spoken under his breath could have been construed as defamatory. He was, the man said, simply unhappy with how the administration had treated him and might have accidentally said as much in the presence of others.

Bow Street. Credit:
Bow Street Trial. Credit:

Allegations of slander and libel were common features of public life in eighteenth-century Britain and its colonies. Manuals were even available to help those accused of having spoken ill of the government defend themselves.[1]

Proof, in the form of witness testimony or a presumption of law, was required to convict an accused of libel in the 1680s. Such evidence established the defendant had the requisite state of mind when publishing defamatory material.[2] Without prima facie proof of sedition in the form of a printed text, the Council needed witnesses to substantiate the charge. In this case, it was the doctor’s word against his accusers’.

According to a letter written by H. Watson, resident of Jamaica, the doctor accounted for his actions before the tribunal by stating:

yt on ye sight of ye fleet sailing away [from Jamaica], & ye paym’t of his money not secured he might passionatly utter many indecent expressions, but not intentionally.

The doctor appealed to the rash character in every reasonable person, arguing that such sentiments could come out of anyone’s mouth. Hans Sloane must have disagreed, for it appears that he himself levelled the allegation against the doctor.

Sloane’s accusation of slander was substantiated by two witnesses who claimed they “heard [the doctor] say ye very same he spoke [to Sloane], w’ch they declared on their oaths”. Fortunately for the doctor, “severall witnesses… who were [near]by… either did not hear or would not remember w’t he spoke”.

Second Battle Of Virginia Capes. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Second Battle Of Virginia Capes. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Watson does not divulge the Council’s final determination, so it is unclear whose word convinced it one way or the other. Regardless, the doctor claimed he would appeal to the Prince of Orange if he were found culpable. He expected “sudden releif from Coll Molesworth who is expected here [in Jamaica] w’th as much earnestness, as ye Turks expect Mahomet”.[3] In Watson’s view, therefore, relief was not anticipated anytime soon.

Was Sloane simply a patriot, unwilling to abide a slight against the Crown? Or, was there bad blood between himself and the doctor?

In the Natural History of Jamaica Sloane relays an account of one ‘Sir H. M. aged about 45, lean, sallow, coloured, his eyes a little yellowish, and belly a little jutting out, or prominent’. The Gentleman’s Quarterly claimed some years later that this patient of Sloane’s was Sir Hender Molesworth, not Sir Henry Morgan, as was previously supposed.

If this is true, Molesworth was one of Sloane’s patients and followed his instructions for a time. He seemed to be improving, but grew frustrated with the slow progress and consulted another physician. According to Sloane, his condition was not ameliorated by his personal habits. Perhaps it was the fact that he was unable

to abstain from Company, he sate up late, drinking too much, whereby he[…] had a return of his first symptoms.[4]

Sloane implored Molesworth to listen to his advice. Dr. Rose shared Sloane’s view and they convinced him to follow their directions once again.

Molesworth was getting better, but took a turn for the worse: “On this alarm he sent for three or four other Physitian”. The latter came to a conclusion that contradicted Sloane. The treatment Molesworth followed “almost carried him off”. Instead of going back to Sloane, he contracted a black doctor and his condition grew worse still. Finally: “He left his Black Doctor, and sent for another, who promis’d his Cure, but he languished, and his Cough augmenting died soon after.”

Molesworth died July 27, 1689. This is shortly after Watson’s letter reached Sloane, so it is possible that nothing ever came of Sloane’s accusation. Sloane might have taken offence at being replaced by a black doctor, choosing to exact revenge through trumped-up charges of treason. Whatever the case, there was likely a personal angle to the matter and Sloane does not seem to have acted as a disinterested protector of the Crown. Molesworth may have uttered indecent expressions, but Sloane was just as willing to dispense with good manners and reply in kind.

[1] C. R. Kropf, “Libel and Satire in the Eighteenth Century”, Eighteenth-Century Studies 8, 2 (1974-5), 153.

[2] Philip Hamburger, “The Development of the Law of Seditious Libel and the Control of the Press”, Stanford Law Rev (1985), 707.

[3] Could ‘Coll Molesworth’ have been a relation of Sir Hender Molesworth, whom he expected would come to his rescue?

[4] Sir Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (London: B.W., 1707), Volume 1, xcviii-xcix.

A hare. Coloured wood engraving.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Of a leveret brought up by a cat

Tales of cross-species ‘friendships’ always warm the cockles of our modern hearts. It is difficult not to be charmed by accounts of Koko the Gorilla’s attachment to kittens and her grief when one died, or tales of a tiger suckling piglets . Early modern people were also fascinated by these odd pairings. In 1654, for example, John Evelyn reported that he “saw a tame lion play familiarly with a lamb” at a London fair. (Evelyn also stuck his hand in the lion’s mouth to touch its tongue—not sure I’d have taken my chances, no matter how tame the lion!)

In 1743, Montague Bacon, the Rector of Newbold Verdun in Leicestershire, offered up another strange pairing for the interest of Sir Hans Sloane (BL Sloane MS 4066, f. 127). “Pray tell Sr. Hans”, he wrote to Captain Tublay, “that my brother has got a Leveret, that has been suckled & bred up by a cat”. Not quite lion and lamb status, but still…

The cat & the Leveret are as fond of one another, as can be. The Cat take’s it to be of her own kind, & sometimes bring’s live mice to it to teach it it’s own hare: and when she see’s, that the Lever[e]t has no relish of the employment, she boxe’s her ears for not learning her bus’ness, as she should do.

A hare. Coloured wood engraving. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A hare. Coloured wood engraving.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Both animal odd couples were clearly curiosities, but viewers would have had very different interpretations. During the Interregnum (1649-1660), the lion and lamb pairing would have had religious and political resonance. Religiously, it evoked Isaiah 11:6 and the dual nature of Christ (lion as conquest and lamb as sacrifice): “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

"Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch" by Edward Hicks - under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch” by Edward Hicks – under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Politically, the lion and lamb pairing also showed up in Royalist works celebrating the return of the king, such as the popular ballad “The King Enjoys His Own Again”:

When all these shall come to pass,
then farewell Musket, Pipe and Drum,
The Lamb shall with the Lyon feed,
which were a happy time indeed:
O let us all pray, we may see the day,
that Peace may govern in his Name:
For then I can tell all things will be well
When the King comes Home in Peace again

The leveret and cat pairing was a much cozier domestic matter. It took place within the home of Bacon’s brother and the cat acted as mother to the leveret, even trying to teach the leveret to hunt. Bacon emphasised the cat’s maternal instinct as overriding its predatorial instinct, so much so that he never even indicated why and how the cat came to be suckling the leveret. (But perhaps it was something like this account of another cat and leveret.) England of 1743 was at peace, but the ever-expanding British empire that brought them into contact with new people, lands and animals: could they be brought under British domestication, too? A homely little tale of predator and prey living together might have been very appealing.

Bacon’s interpretation also has similiarities with our own modern tendencies in anthropomorphization; we look for examples of nurturing behaviours–our own best selves, as reflected in the animal world. But his interpretation differs from ours, as well. Where we might read the animal behaviour as emotion (as with the video showing Koko’s grief), Bacon was more circumspect in making that comparison, describing the pair “as fond of one another, as can be”.

In any case, the real animal curiosity as far as Bacon was concerned, was not the cat and leveret relationship. In the letter, he gave as many lines to another point of interest:

I know not whether it be a curiosity to mention, that our neighbor Mr. Crawley has a breed of white, quite white Game hares. The young ones are speckled, when young, but grow quite white, as they grow up. Sr. Hans can tell whether these things are worth mentioning or not.

Now that line of enquiry is very different from our modern interests, but certainly fit with the eighteenth-century attempts to classify the world around them. When looking at accounts of animal friendships, then and now, context is indeed everything.

Two mothers with crying babies and one in a walking frame; comparing the human infant's helplessness with the self-sufficiency of newborn animals. Engraving by P. Galle, c. 1563. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A Peculiar Postscript

Eighteenth-century letters generally contain an excess of politeness, even when one correspondent rebuked another. But every now and then, letter recipients must have been left scratching their heads—and not because of head lice…

In 1732, the Dowager Countess of Ferrers wrote to Mrs Hinde, asking her to take the letter along with payment to Sir Hans Sloane for advice on an eye problem. The letter begins with an apology for not writing to Mr Hinde. This the Countess blamed on her eye trouble, which “render’d it [writing] so uneasy to me that I now never attempt it but when forced by Business of necessity”. The Countess then found the energy to write a lengthy letter (about 1200 words) on her eye problem. Well then, that put the Hindes in their place: she was only writing because she wanted something.

Of course, there was an obvious status difference between writer and recipient here. The rules for polite behaviour that were so integral to the Republic of Letters (or when a lower-ranking person wrote to a higher-ranking recipient) did not apply when the letter writer was the social superior. The Hindes probably thought nothing of this particular comment.

But still, the real charm clincher comes in the postscript.

I am glad yr young baby and misses have so much Health & strength & gives so much entertainment to ye whole Family, I cannot say that I ever could give into ye amusement of being able to divert my self with little Children but I have often envy’d those that found pleasure in them & therefore give Mrs Hinde Joy upon that occasion.

Two mothers with crying babies and one in a walking frame; comparing the human infant's helplessness with the self-sufficiency of newborn animals. Engraving by P. Galle, c. 1563. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Two mothers with crying babies and one in a walking frame; comparing the human infant’s helplessness with the self-sufficiency of newborn animals. Engraving by P. Galle, c. 1563. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Righto. And this is what I hear it as:

Congratulations on the birth of your baby, if that’s what makes you happy. I hate small kids. And I’m sorry not sorry that I never liked them.

Anyway, social status notwithstanding, the Countess’ somewhat peculiar (if unintentionally hilarious) postscript surely must have left the Hindes wondering how long they could reasonably wait before passing on the letter to Sloane. And given that the Countess had sent the letter from France, there could have been any number of possible reasons for a delay.

James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

On Tooth Worms

St. Apollonia, patron saint of tooth pain. Francisco de Zurbaran, 1636.
St. Apollonia, patron saint of tooth pain. Francisco de Zurbaran, 1636.

The 9th of February is St. Apollonia’s Day and, in the U.S., National Toothache Day. So I offer you tooth-worms, which–as Nicolas Andry described them in An account of the breeding of worms in human bodies (1701)—“occasion a deaf Pain mix’d with an itching in the teeth; they insensibly consume the Teeth, and cause a hideous Stink” (85). On 3 July 1700, John Chamberlayne wrote to Hans Sloane on the matter of his own tooth worms.

Now, these men were not people with particularly weird ideas, even for the time. Rather, the idea that toothaches were caused by worms had been around for a very long time. For a good overview of this verminous history, you should read Lindsey Fitzharris’ post on “The Battle of the Tooth Worm”.

This idea was still widely held in the late seventeenth century, even by the intellectual elite. For example, at a Royal Society meeting on 18 July 1678, Robert Hooke compared a growth within a tree trunk to tooth rot. At this point, Society members digressed into discussions of worms causing rot and the removal of tooth worms. In one case, a woman extracted the worms with a sharpened quill; in other cases, “the same thing was done by the help of the fumes of henbane seeds taken into the mouth; whereby the saliva falling into a basin of water held underneath, would discover several living worms, supposed to issue either from the gums or teeth”.[1]

Old knowledge could even, seemingly, be supported by investigations using new technologies. In a letter published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1684, Anton van Leewenhoek described his microscopical observations “about Animals in the Scurf of the Teeth”. Leeuwenhoek started with his own teeth, “kept usually clean”. He examined other samples of tooth plaque from two women, an eight-year old and two old men.Using his microscope, he discovered several sorts of creatures, some like worms, in the plaque—so many that “they exceed the number of Men in a kingdom”. These creatures, though, were present in sound, healthy teeth. Could these be tooth worms?

Leeuwenhoek was not so convinced by 1700 when two of his letters “concerning Worms Pretended to be Taken from the Teeth” was published in the Phil. Trans. He had examined two worms “taken out of a corrupt Tooth by smoaking”, one of which was still alive after four days in the post (sent on 4 July 1700). Leeuwenhoek believed it came from the egg of a type of fly that laid their eggs in cheese. He rounded up more worms from his local friendly cheesemonger and ran several experiments (including watching the worms copulate).

As to how the worms ended up in the teeth… Teeth—or, flesh more specifically—were not the worms’ natural habitat. The flies took nine days to mature, but meat needed to be salted or smoked sooner. Leeuwenhoek instead believed that the worm specimens had come from a patient who

had some time before eaten Cheese laden with young Worms, or Eggs of the above-mention’d Flies, and that these Worms or Eggs were not touch’d or injur’d in the chewing of the Cheese, but stuck in the hollow Teeth.

Gnawing worms had caused the tooth pain. Or did they?

For his work on bodily worms, Andry had also examined some worms “that a Tooth-Drawer took off of a Lady’s Teeth in cleaning them”. Based on this case, Andry concluded that tooth worms rotted the teeth, but did not cause any pain. These small, long and slender worms with round black heads bred “under a Crust that covers the Surface of the Teeth when they’re disorder’d” (38).

To the modern reader, Leeuwenhoek’s argument is more sensible. Sure, there might be microscopic creatures living on the teeth, but they were not the same as the so-called tooth worms… which were really more cheese worms than anything. But at the time, Andry’s version would have been compelling. Worms were thought to breed in unclean conditions and, as Andry made clear, they could breed under a crust on an unhealthy tooth: it was the disorder in the tooth, not the worm, that caused the pain.

James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

When John Chamberlayne, Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote to Sloane about his own tooth-worms, he did so in the interest of advancing knowledge and reporting on an efficacious treatment. He did not ask for Sloane’s advice, but instead reported on his visit to Mr. Upton, known for his “tooth-candling” expertise. Using heat and smoke, Upton removed rheum from Chamberlayne’s gums and extracted ten or twelve worms. This was apparently on the low side, since Upton on a really good day could remove sixty worms.

Chamberlayne claimed that he ordinarily had no faith in men such as Upton (meaning: irregular practitioners, sometimes known as quacks), but many gentlemen of his acquaintance had attested to the success of Upton’s treatment. Of course, given that Chamberlayne also described his teeth as “loose and corrupted”, he may also have been willing to try anything for what must have been terrible pain!

Chamberlayne was familiar with the wider discussions about bodily worms, referring, for example, to Leeuwenhoek’s 1684 article in the Phil. Trans. Besides the report, Chamberlayne may have taken a chance to do his bit for knowledge in another way: he may have sent Sloane some tooth worms. Is it just coincidence that Chamberlayne’s letter to Sloane was dated 3 July 1700 and that Leeuwenhoek referred to worm specimens sent on 4 July 1700?

Whatever the case, one moral of the story is: choose your cheese wisely if you have bad teeth.

[1] Thomas Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London, vol. 3 (1757): 428.

Death carries off a child on his back. Etching by Stefano De
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Measles in History

The terror of smallpox lives on in popular memory, but measles are often dismissed by many as just a childhood disease: How much harm could it really cause? And aren’t childhood diseases useful for breaking in immune systems anyhow? We overlook measles at our peril, as recent outbreaks, such as the Disneyland one, have shown. It only takes one sick person for the disease to spread rapidly among those who can’t be vaccinated (such as babies), those whose vaccines are incomplete or unsuccessful, and those who opted out of vaccination.

But is measles really comparable to smallpox, or am I being a bit extreme? Well, in early modern Europe, measles—more specifically, its complications–was considered as deadly as smallpox.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In 1730, physician Thomas Fuller published Exanthematologia: Or, An Attempt to Give a Rational Account of Eruptive Fevers, especially of the Measles and Small Pox. Fuller addressed it to Sir Hans Sloane and the Royal College of Physicians. In part, this was a strategy to situate the book as part of the reformed and rationale medicine that Sloane championed as the College’s President.

But it would have appealed to Sloane who had promoted smallpox inoculation and had a longstanding interest in fevers. Not only did he help to popularise the use of Peruvian bark for treating fevers, regularly using it in his own practice, but he took an interest in the publication of Edward Strother’s Criticon Febrium: or, a critical essay on fevers in 1716 (Preface). Strother, perhaps not coincidentally, was also a fan of Peruvian bark (48).

Fuller classified and described the various types of fevers with rashes or pustules, concluding that the most dangerous were smallpox and measles. Although the two diseases were very different, they had something crucial in common, being contagions that could be spread through one’s breath or skin pores (93). These “venemous fevers” were produced by a venom that was mild, unless over-heated—then the fevers became “more killing than even the Plague itself” (119).

Measles, even in its most benign state, is a miserable experience. The symptoms include: coldness and shivering; yawning; queasiness and vomiting; anguish; headache and backache; quick and weak pulse; great heat and thirst; short, painful breathing and oppession of the breast; hypochondriac tension and pale urine; watchfulness and drowsiness; convulsions; weakness and heaviness; redness, swelling, and pricking of eyes, lids and brows; involuntary tears and sneezing; sore throat, hoarseness, runny nose, and perpetual cough (142).

Fuller noted that not only did the cough always come before the measles, but that the pain in one’s chest and shortness of breath were much worse in measles than smallpox (147-8). Measles could also become malignant, or as we’d call it today, develop complications. The fever would last longer than four days and the spots would erupt much more slowly. Worse yet, diarrhea and peripneumonia occurring afterwards could prove fatal (149-150). At this point, Fuller included excerpts from Thomas Sydenham’s observations of measles outbreaks during the 1670s (151-7).

Death carries off a child on his back. Etching by Stefano De Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Death carries off a child on his back. Etching by Stefano Della Bella, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It is Sydenham’s references to the personal devastation from the illness that caught my attention. In 1670, measles “seiz’d chiefly on Children; but spar’d none in any House they enter’d into” (151). By day 8, the spots cleared up, as was typical, but that is when the cough set in: “we are to observe, that at this Time the Fever, and Difficulty of Breathing are increased; and the Cough grown so cruelly troublesome, as to hinder Sleep Day and Night”. The cause of the children’s terrible coughs, Sydenham suggested, was poor management of the disease; they had “been kept too hot, and have taken hot Medicines, to drive, or keep out the Measles” (153). As we know now, complications are more likely to happen in people who have chronic conditions, the very young or elderly, and the malnourished.

So, how did Sydenham and Fuller treat measles? With “much the same Method of Cure with the Small-pox”. Not surprising, given that they were both classed as venomous diseases. Above all, “hot medicines and regimen are extreamly pernicious”. The patient should “eat no flesh”, only water-gruel, barley-broth and roasted apples (sometimes). To drink, the patient was allowed small beer or watered down milk. The patient was to remain in bed for two to three days during the eruption, so the morbose particles would leave through the skin (155-6).

The cough should be treated with a pectoral decoction, linctus and diacodium (poppy syrup): “Very rarely, if ever, will any one that useth this Method die”. If the cough continued, it could “bring great Danger”. Bleeding was the clear choice in that case. “I have (with great Success)”, Sydenham promised, “order’d even the youngest Infants to be let Blood in the Arm; and where the Case requir’d it, I have not fear’d to repeat the same.” This rescued “truly many Children that have been at Death’s Door”. As a bonus, bleeding treated the diarrhea by ridding the body of sharp humours (156-7).

No wonder measles was so feared, with Sydenham declaring that the pneumonia “is so fatal commonly after the Measles, that it may well be reckon’d the chief Minister of Death, destroying more than even the Small-Pox itself” (157). They didn’t know yet about the potential for brain damage or deafness! In the West, we’ve forgotten the real horror of epidemic diseases that killed children.

For some other historical discussions of measles, see The Wellcome Trust Blog on the development of vaccination programmes and Historiann on the early eighteenth-century treatments proposed by Cotton Mather.

If only we knew what the grimace was... Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A Most Dangerous Rivalry

By James Hawkes

The Royal Society is in turmoil as competing factions battle for control. Not only is our hero Hans Sloane’s job on the line, but the very existence of the Royal Society hangs in the balance…

 Dr. John Woodward (Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Dcoetzee)
Dr. John Woodward (Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Dcoetzee)

No this is not the TV Guide summary of a niche costume drama, but the results of a bitter dispute between Dr. Hans Sloane and Dr. John Woodward in 1710. Not only did these men have starkly different visions for the future of the Royal Society, but they were competitors for rare curiosities and specimens. It’s perhaps not surprising that the men became rivals! Woodward launched a concerted campaign to unseat Sloane, which nearly succeeded.

Woodward, professor of Physic at Gresham College, championed a highly empirical and experimental approach for the Royal Society. He resented Sloane’s tendency to publish an increasingly ‘miscellaneous’ assortment of articles in  the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions–particularly those written by Sloane’s friends. (This was, admittedly, a complaint even by men who liked Sloane!) Woodward naturally considered the man most disadvantaged by this unjust state of affairs to be himself.  He made it his mission to save the Royal Society from those he feared would undermine the scientific progress of mankind.

Sloane and Woodward actually had much in common: they were both medical doctors with a deep-seated curiosity about the natural world. They were also active in the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians. Both earned considerable respect for their scholarly endeavours: Sloane, for his botanical work on the West Indies, and Woodward, for his prolific writings, especially on geology. Each man had a circle of scientific contacts across the British Empire and the Continent.

Sloane and Woodward also built impressive collections of natural and antiquarian items, preserved for posterity by (respectively) the British Museum and the Woodward Professorship at Cambridge. Woodward is even on record in a letter to Sloane declaring that he thought himself Sloane’s friend… albeit in the context of trying to explain away intemperate remarks about Sloane.

But the Devil is always in the details. Sloane had a reputation for collecting pretty much anything that fell into his hands. Woodward, however, focused on what he thought to be academically useful. These different approaches helped Woodward to drive a  wedge between Sloane and Sir Isaac Newton (then President of the Royal Society), who had little respect for Sloane’s collecting habits.

The situation finally exploded in 1709 when Sloane, as First Secretary of the Royal Society,  published a book review by Woodward’s long-standing enemy Edward Lhwyd. In his review of the work of a Swiss geologist, Lhwyd went out of his way to ridicule Woodward’s theories. Woodward demanded satisfaction. One contemporary said he did not know if the affair would end

whether by the sword or by the pen. If the former, Dr. Mead has promised to be Dr. Sloane’s second.(Levine)

A distinct possibility for resolving the conflict. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Uploaded by Noodleki
One conflict resolution option. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Noodleki.

Dr. Mead was, of course, another one of the many enemies that Woodward was so good at making. Indeed, ten years later Mead and Woodward duelled to resolve a dispute on the best way to treat smallpox. There are many versions of what happened. According to one, with Woodward defeated Mead bellowed, “Take your life,” to which Woodward replied, “Anything but your Physic.” But that is another story.

In an attempt to keep the bickering between Woodward and Sloane from escalating into violence, Sir Isaac Newton forced Sloane to publish a retraction, indicating he thought some of Woodward’s ire was justified. Woodward’s plans to overthrow Sloane nonetheless continued apace. Woodward managed to get a friend, John Harris, elected secretary. He then proclaimed in a letter to Ralph Thoresby that:

Dr. Sloane declared at the next Meeting he would lay down…. He guesses right enough that the next step would be to set him aside.

Woodward and his faction were so confident by this point that he criticised Newton as incapable. Harris even invited Newton’s nemesis, Leibniz, to write for the Transactions. Perhaps Woodward’s ambition was becoming so great that he hoped to be Newton’s successor as President of the Royal Society–an honour that would fall to Sloane much later, in 1727.

The power struggle culminated when Sloane was presenting on bezoars to the Society. Woodward attacked Sloane’s thesis and Sloane, unable to come up with a reply, allegedly resorted to making faces at Woodward.  These grimaces were “very strange and surprising, and such as were enough to provide any ingenuous sensible man to a warmth.”

If only we knew what the grimace was... Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
If only we knew what the grimace was… Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Council was convened to resolve this controversy once and for all. They debated whether Sloane had actually been making faces and whether Woodward’s ire was justified. Woodward seemed on the brink of victory, but then lost his temper when Sloane denied the charges: “Speak sense, or English, and we shall understand you!” Woodward, unwilling to apologize was summarily kicked out. He then claimed that Sloane had packed the Council with his cronies, complaining to no avail of the “Mystery of Iniquity that reigns there.His friend Harris was soon enough replaced and so his entire revolution fell apart.

Although it may be more amusing to think of these eminent doctors as perpetually busy with childish bickering, they were capable of acting professionally on occasion. Even after this great controversy Woodward was willing to recommend  Sloane to a patient and attempted to enlist Sloane’s support to obtain a lucrative new position. Still, their showdown does appear to have put a bit of a damper on their correspondence, and it would seem that their relationship never entirely recovered.

As it happened, with Woodward gone, Sloane and Newton soon fell to sniping at one another. When Sloane was forced to resign as secretary in 1713, Woodward ended up on the side of Sloane against Newton, who Woodward now saw as an evil tyrant holding the Society back.

The more things change, the more they stay the same?



Benedict, Barbara. “Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Life, 36, 2 (2012).

Levine, Joseph. Doctor Woodward’s Shield: History, Science, and Satire in Augustan England. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977.

MacGregor, Arthur. “The Life, Character and Career of Sir Hans Sloane,” Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary Founding Father of the British Museum. Ed. Arthur MacGregor. London: British Museum Press, 1994.