DR. JOHNSON’S LONDON: Book Review
You can be sure that 250 years from now, our medical practices and procedures will seem as ignorant, our medications as risible and primitive as do those of 250 years ago. I’m reading Liza Picard’s delightful Dr. Johnson’s London: Everyday Life in London 1740-1770, and enjoying the ride. She devotes a few pages to illness and its treatments. George West’s Pectoral Elixir, for example, “began with four gallons each of garden snails and millipedes, ‘bruised to a perfect paste,’ as well as dozens of other ingredients.” James Collett’s Oleum Vitae or Ladies’ Nervous and Cordial Drops for Lowness of Spirits “were made of distilled river water and the best Madeira wine,” which Picard notes, “surely made the ladies more cheerful.” Dr. Rock’s Cathartic Electuary, advertised to cure “the most inveterate degree [of pox]… ” had 14 ingredients “including rhubarb and salt of vipers and mercury.” Maredent’s Drops for “scurvy, leprosy and evil” contained mercury. Lead and steel are other favorite ingredients for cures.
Are we better off today? Our medications are certainly more sophisticated and seem generally more effective. But who knows what they’ll look like to a citizen of 2263, if any of us survive that long. I feel confident that someone, in that year, will be sitting and reading about the thyroid and cholesterol pills I take and having a good laugh.
Why read about 18-century London? Well, for myself, it’s because one of the narrators of the novel I’m working on is a gentleman who spends some (rather scurrilous) time there. But it’s an instructive read for those of us who are bothered by things like poverty and injustice precisely because though social conditions for the many have surely, immeasurably improved, the roots of the problems are remarkably and troublingly the same. We have done away, for the most part, with the aristocracy, but have substituted a new one in the form of the privileged wealthy who sit at the top of the pile. Beneath them and supporting them is, what was called in the 18th century, “the middling sort” — the middle class — which again has grown immeasurably. And yet still at the bottom are the masses of the world’s poor — the hungry, the underprivileged. For too many, such basics as food and medicine are scarce, if available at all. For too many, even in our own country, the justice system is loaded against them and seeks to solve social problems by throwing citizens in jail. At the heart of our society and to our shame, we carry our own London, c. 1740.
But perhaps the best reason to check out this book is that it’s not only good history, it’s good fun. Well, fun — not so much to read about the filth and the stench, the vast numbers of people who never took a bath, the risks of disease and early death. But still, we can enjoy looking at it all from a comfortable distance — with the salutary reminder that we do the same with much of our own world today. And Picard, our lens into the past, guides us along with good humor and zest.
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