The Project

By the early eighteenth century, writing by physicians had changed, the dominant language now being English: where Thomas Willis (1621-75) published only in Latin and was translated after his death, the more popularity-minded Gideon Harvey (1636/7-1702?) chose English to take advantage of a widening readership. This move was prompted partly by expansion in the literary market-place, partly by altering perceptions of the role of medicine, and partly by changes within medicine itself.

Doctors, as the century developed, found themselves competing with other authors and attention became more focused not only on medical topics but also on the modes of expression and the personality of the writer, himself and, increasingly, herself.

The shift from Latin had significant implications. Doctors became aware of a wider audience and of the appeal to readers that personality makes. The growth of the doctor as celebrity (George Cheyne, for example) meant increased sales and enhanced reputation and practice. Certain illnesses and treatments, moreover, attracted wide readerships, obliging writers to keep abreast of public interest while developing their own medical specialism. This shift prompted, too, a rise in female medical writing, often dealing with childbirth, maternity and female disorders. Women could not become physicians, but published on medical topics, and practised as midwives, even as unqualified doctors.

Publishing was significant for personal reputation, but also for the professionalisation of medicine, with Royal Colleges setting standards for entry and for licences to practise. The shift, though, encouraged the spread of unqualified amateurs and conmen, announcing outlandish cures or treatments. The literary market-place made an ideal home for disseminating such products and the reputations of their creators.

Alongside this trend was an increasing readiness by non-medical writers and artists to portray members of the profession satirically, as people of ignorance masquerading as experts, or as quacks only interested in money. A set of character types emerged, with characteristic signs ? the silver-topped cane, stroking the chin in pretend thought ? identifying doctors as figures of fun.

What had been a field of specialised knowledge, finally, became democratised through print. Self-help handbooks, family medical encyclopaedias, handbills and advertisements cultivated the emergence of the written doctor, and helped consolidate the material culture of books and periodicals within society. Medicine, by the end of the eighteenth century, meant something very different from what it had at the beginning, and a significant part of this change was down to writing doctors.