An eighteenth-century doctor’s bill

I mentioned in my last post about some of the documents I’ve bought (and then felt guilty about!). By means of divesting my conscience, I’m going to put an example here to demonstrate why I think these things can be well worth the money.

Withey MS1 (!) is a doctor’s bill for services rendered to Sir Christopher Musgrave, (1688-1736),  the 5th Baronet of Edenhall in Cumbria in 1733. From what I can gather, Musgrave was a “hot-headed fellow” and, fond of a tipple. The bill is signed William Donkin and this is likely to be a surgeon of that name who lived in Penrith in Cumbria and who, from the limited information I’ve been able to garner so far, appears to have been a fairly well-to-do figure in the area.

I love these types of documents. I’ve done lots of work recently on early modern Welsh recipe collections. They are great sources and give you insight into the types of remedies in use, their ingredients, where they were obtained from and so on, but they don’t give you the actual process. This does. It gives you a window into the consultation itself, the actual times a doctor visited a family, what he prescribed and, importantly, how much he charged. It’s a great way of seeing the relationship between a physician employed within a particular family, and his patient(s).

The first entry, for example, refers to ‘bleeding Lady Musgrave’, which was done again three days later. This could have been a response to a specific ailment, or just a ‘spring clean’ to keep the humours moving.  But the next couple of entries speak darkly of something afflicting Sir Christopher, as Donkin was called out twice to his bedside at night, for which he charged a call-out fee plus various prescriptions, from an ‘apozem’ to a ‘cordial julep’. An ‘apozem’ was an infusion – essentially a type Imageof herbal tea, whilst a ‘cordial julep’ was another type of herbal concoction with a variety of uses. It is very difficult to infer what Sir Christopher had, but if these were the only prescriptions, it suggests something fairly mild.

Other entries refer to recipes for other members of the family, including a ‘purging potion’ for the chamber maid, a ‘vomit and a draught’. Clearly, Donkin was kept busy by the machinations of the Musgrave family’s intestines!

It does show what can be learned from just one document though. Context is everything, and it is always difficult to look at something in isolation. Nevertheless, even this one bill from Dr Donkin, now nearly 300 years old, reveals a very great deal about some uncomfortable moments in the life of one of England’s eighteenth-century peers!

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