A Forgotten Tudor Scientist – Part 1


By Patricia Deegan (written 2007 and revised 2016)

Part I: Background – Medical Treatment in Tudor England

This series of articles are about a man who has been called the “Father of English Botany”: William Turner.  Botany being the scientific study of plants.

Plants were important sources of medications available to society in Medieval and Tudor England as pharmaceutical medications, created in laboratories, were not available. The first main scientific identification of a chemical medical treatment was not until the 18th century when digitalis was identified as the cardio-active component found in the foxglove plant by a Scottish doctor.  The biochemical Salicin, from the bark of the willow tree and from the meadowsweet plant, was not identified until the 19th century and was then used to create aspirin. Though all these plants had been used in previous centuries by those with knowledge of medicinal plants.

Meadowsweet Plant – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Filipendula_ulmaria_Sturm12.jpg

Some other items were sold in Tudor England as medicines, such as mercury which was used to ‘treat’ the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. However, syphilis advances in stages and appears to go into remission at various points so I suspect that doctors treated the symptoms with mercury until the symptoms stopped and assumed that the mercury had ‘cured’ the syphilis.

A man having mercury ointment applied to his legs. This was done with a spatula to avoid the doctor coming into contact with the sores and the mercury. From Paracelus’ “Erster Theil [-der dritte] der grossen Wundartzney die Frantzosen genannt”. Sp Coll Ferguson Ap-d.51 (Frankfurt, 1562).
Medicine in the 16th century, apart from family knowledge passed from mother to daughters, was available from three main sources in English society:

  • Physicians: these were university trained medical people of that time. They cannot have been too terrible as Henry VIII had Dr William Butts as his personal physician and abject failure of his treatments would not have been tolerated. However, the curriculum for doctors (physicians) at this time also included subjects such as astrology, examining urine and knowledge of the bodily ‘humours’ (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) as disease was thought to be caused by an excess or deficit of one of these four humours. The training was extremely theoretical. Physicians might recommend bloodletting as a treatment if they thought that the disease they were trying to treat was caused by an ‘excess’ of the blood humour, but the process would then be carried out by a surgeon (see below). The current Royal College of Physicians, a professional organisation for medical doctors, was given a charter in 1518 as the College of Physicians. Physicians were very expensive.
  • Apothecaries: They made up and sold medicines. The Tudor equivalent of the modern pharmacist/druggist. There were not many of these – by 1600 there were only about 100 of them in the whole country.ł
  • Barber-Surgeons: These were not the highly trained specialist doctors that surgeons are today. The first surgeons in medieval times had been barbers. They were trained for a number of years but were apprenticed to a fellow barber-surgeon and worked under the direction of a physician in medical matters.  They would also extract teeth and cut hair. The barbers and surgeons had separate guilds until 1540 when Henry VIII merged them.

Part I Bibliography

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_College_of_Physicians  [Accessed 24/10/16]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloodletting [Accessed 24/10/16]
http://www.historiccoventry.co.uk/1605/main/surgery.php [Accessed 24/10/16]
http://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/infographics/a-history-of-aspirin/20066661.article [Accessed 24/10/16]
https://www.ch.ic.ac.uk/vchemlib/mim/bristol/digitalis/digitalis_text.htm [Accessed 24/10/16]
http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/people/barbersurgeons  [Accessed 24/10/16]

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7 Comments Leave a comment

  1. The old aphorism : One night with Venus , the rest of your life on mercury.
    I addition to syphilis mercury was also used to treat gonorrhea.

      • Mercury, in the form of mercurochrome paint, a bright red colour , was still used for treating children with congenital syphylis ( acquired from mother during pregnancy) in the 1930s. Obviously it’s toxicity was not yet realised .

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