Researching Medical Practitioners in Early Modern Ireland

In October 2013 I joined the team on the Early Modern Practitioners project as a relative newcomer to medical history. Since then I have enjoyed the opportunity to approach early modern Ireland from what is, for me, a new and rewarding direction.

In my previous research, encompassing landownership, politics, religion and various other subjects, I had frequently come across medical practitioners. For example, at least four Catholic physicians were among those who received assignments of land in the transplantation to Connacht, the scheme that was the focus of my doctoral thesis. Another physician, William Petty, played a fundamental role in the implementation of the Cromwellian land settlement.

Image from Wikipedia Commons

Image from Wikipedia Commons

While figures such as Petty need no introduction, the vast majority of medical practitioners enjoyed far less contemporary prominence. The evidence that has survived concerning this majority varies greatly in content and extent. Still, there can be few, if any, historians of early modern Ireland who have not encountered a medical practitioner of one kind or another at some point in the course of archival research.

When addressing the issue of archival resources for the history early modern Ireland, it is always tempting to focus on gaps and absences. After all, a few well-known disasters have served to deprive scholars of an enormous body of source materials. In a western European context, the Irish archive can appear meagre in some respects, especially when compared to England.

Within the Early Modern Practitioners project, the evidence available from wills provides one of the more striking contrasts between Ireland and England. All but a handful of Ireland’s surviving prerogative and diocesan wills were destroyed in 1922, and many of the surviving indexes lack occupational data. Identifying and analysing what has survived in miscellaneous copies and genealogical abstracts is a challenging task, but also a very worthwhile one. Among the more useful resources is the collection of transcripts of medical wills made by Sybil Kirkpatrick in the Public Record Office in 1910-11 and now housed in the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

Image copyright National Library of Ireland

Image copyright National Library of Ireland

The problem of gaps and absences is not simply due to the subsequent destruction of archives. It is also worth keeping in mind that the administrative and corporate structures that generated some important sources for medical history in other early modern states were sometimes lacking or ineffective in Ireland. For example, ecclesiastical licensing of medical practitioners does not seem to have been widespread. This is, however, a subject that requires further exploration. The relative weakness of the Church of Ireland and the fact that most of the population adhered to Catholicism was undoubtedly of importance in this context.

This very brief recital of some of the limitations imposed by the available sources is not intended as an exercise in pessimism. It is helpful, I think, to go about establishing where the existing boundaries are and where they might usefully be pushed back. Drawing contrasts with the richer source bases often available for other countries and regions is part of the task of locating and making sense of the medical history of early modern Ireland in wider contexts. There is plenty of work to be done and much to be optimistic about. Stay tuned.

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Hunting for 17th-century medics…with few sources!

At the moment I’m once again on the hunt for elusive Welsh practitioners in the early modern period. The idea is to try and build up a map of practice, not only in Wales, but across the whole of the country. Once this is done we should have a clearer picture of where practitioners were, but also other key factors such as their networks, length of practice, range and so on.

Working on Welsh sources can at times be utterly frustrating. For some areas and time period in Wales sources are sparse to the point of non-existence. Time and again sources that yield lots of new names in England draw a complete blank in Wales. Ian Mortimer’s work on East Kent, for example, was based on a sample of around 15000 probate accounts. This enabled him to draw important new conclusions about people’s spending on medical practitioners in their final days. For Wales there are less than 20 probate accounts covering the early modern period!


Wales had no medical institutions or universities, so there are no records of practitioners’ education or training. Welsh towns were generally smaller than those in England – the largest, Wrexham, had around 3000 inhabitants by 1700 –and this had a limiting effect on trade corporations and guilds. As far as I can tell there were no medical guilds in Wales between 1500-1750. It is also interesting to note that relatively few Welsh medics went to the trouble of obtaining a medical licence. A long distance from the centres of licensing in London, it could be argued that a licence was simply not necessary. Coupled with this was the fact that there was virtually no policing of unlicensed practice in Wales…only a bare few prosecutions survive.

The common perception has long been that there were simply few practitioners in early modern Wales. In this view, the vacuum left by orthodox practice was filled by cunning folk, magical healers and charmers, of which there is a long Welsh tradition. When I wrote Physick and the Family I suggested that there was a hidden half to Welsh medicine, and that if we shift the focus away from charmers etc then a much more nuanced picture emerges. When I began my search in earnest on this project, I was (and still am) confident that Welsh practitioners would soon emerge in numbers.


At the moment, however, the number stands at around the 600 mark. This includes anyone identified as practising medicine in any capacity, and in any type of source, roughly between 1500 and 1750. So, 600 people engaged in medicine over a 250 year period, over the whole of Wales. Admittedly it doesn’t sound much! As a colleague gently suggested recently, this puts the ratio of practitioner to patient in Wales at any given time as roughly 1-50,000!

Here, though, the question is how far the deficiencies of the sources are masking what could well have been a vibrant medical culture. How do you locate people whose work was, by its nature, ephemeral? If we start with parish registers, for example, their survival is extremely patchy. For some, indeed many, areas of Wales, there are simply no surviving parish records much before 1700. Add to that the problem of identifying occupations in parish registers and the situation is amplified. How many practitioners must there be hidden in parish registers as just names, with no record of what they did? It is also frustrating, and probably no coincidence, that the areas we most want to learn about are often those with the least records!


Records of actual practice depend upon the recording of the medical encounter, or upon some record of the qualification (good or bad), training, education or social life of the practitioner. Diaries and letters can prove insightful, but so much depends on the quality and availability of these sources. There are many sources of this type in Wales but, compared to other areas of the country with broader gentry networks, they pale in comparison.

All of this sounds rather negative, and it is one of the signal problems in being a historian of medicine in Wales of this period. In a strange way, however, it can also be a liberating experience. I have long found that an open mind works best, followed by a willingness to take any information – however small – and see where it can lead. Once you get past the desperation to build complete biographies of every practitioner you find, it is surprising what can actually be recovered.

In some cases, all I have is a name. Oliver Humphrey, an apothecary of a small town in Radnorshire makes a useful case in point. He is referred to fleetingly in a property transaction of 1689. This is seemingly the only time he ever troubles the historical record. And yet this chance encounter actually does reveal something about his life and, potentially, his social status and networks. The deed identifies him as an apothecary of ‘Pontrobert’ – a small hamlet 7 miles from the market town of Llanfyllin, and 12 from Welshpool. Immediately this is unusual – apothecaries were normally located in towns, and seldom in small, rural hamlets.


The deed involved the transfer of lands from Oliver and two widows from the same hamlet, to a local gentleman, Robert ap Oliver. Was this Robert a relative of Oliver Humphrey? If so, was Oliver from a fairly well-to-do family, and therefore possibly of good status himself? Alternatively, was Robert ap Oliver part of Humphrey’s social network, in which case what does this suggest about the social circles in which apothecaries moved?

Where there is a good run of parish registers, it can be possible to read against the grain and find out something of the changing fortunes of medics. Marriages, baptisms and deaths all point to both the length of time that individuals can be located in a particular place, and how they were identified. In some cases, for example, the nomenclature used to identify them might change; hence an apothecary might elsewhere or later be referred to as a barber-surgeon, a doctor or, often, in a non-medical capacity. This brings me back to the point made earlier about the problems in identifying exactly who medical practitioners were.

An example I came across yesterday was a bond made by a Worcestershire practitioner, Humphrey Walden, “that in consideration of the sum of £3 he will by the help of God cure Sibill, wife of Mathew Madock of Evengob, and Elizabeth Havard, sister to the said John Havard, of the several diseases wherewith they are grieved, by the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist next ensuing, and that they shall continue whole and perfectly cured until the month of March next, failing which he shall repay the sum of £3”.

Apart from the wonderful early money-back guarantee, this source actually contains a potentially very important piece of information. It confirms that a Worcester practitioner was treating patients in Wales – Evenjobb is in Radnorshire. Walden may have been an associate of John Havard and been selected for that reason. Alternatively, he may have had a reputation along the Welsh marches as a healer for certain conditions, and been sought out for that reason. It strongly suggests the mutability of borders though, and the willingness of both patients and practitioners to travel.

In other cases practitioners pop up in things completely unrelated to their practice. The only record I have of one Dr Watkin Jones of Laleston in Glamorgan occurs because he was effectively a spy for the earl of Leicester, being called upon to watch for the allegedly adulterous activities of Lady Leicester – Elizabeth Sidney. At the very least, however, it confirms his presence in the area, his rough age, and the fact that he was connected to a gentry family.

And so the search continues. My list of potential source targets is growing and I’m confident that a great many more Welsh medics are still there to be found. If, as I suspect, the final number is still relatively small, I still don’t accept that as conclusive evidence of a lack of medical practice in Wales. As the old maxim goes absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. What it might call for is a revaluation of Welsh cultural factors affecting medical practice and, perhaps, a greater and more inclusive exploration of medical practice, in all its forms in Wales.

(This post originally appeared on Alun Withey’s blog – apologies for cross-posting)

Landscape of Occupations April 2014 – Conference Report

The ‘Landscape of Occupations’ workshop, held at the University of Exeter on the 8th and 9th of April 2014, featured presentations from fifteen scholars, covering an exceptionally wide range of perspectives on the theme of work and occupational identity in late medieval and early modern Europe. Fields examined ranged from agriculture to fine art, and of course included medical practice in many of its early modern forms, in a context which highlighted the parallels, dependencies and contexts which connected them all. Perhaps more importantly the ‘landscape’ of occupations was considered on a range of scales, from macroeconomic surveys spanning centuries and nations, to microeconomic considerations of occupational communities, and nano-studies of family economies.

Combining such diverse perspectives and examples, we were able to reflect upon historians’ approaches to occupational history, and two distinct conceptions of the term ‘occupation’. Many papers approaching the subject from the perspective of economic history emphasized ‘occupation’ as a description of work, while historians working from a social and cultural tradition have focused upon ‘occupation’ as a self-defined, or indeed projected, label of identity. While this might appear to be a paradox, both definitions are naturally equally true, and both reflect the consistent desire, both amongst early moderns and historians, to reduce identity to a simple term, especially when responding to, or describing, change. Attempts at fixing occupational identities to single work activities occurred notably during periods of economic anxiety, including the failed statute regulating ‘one man, one trade’ of 1363, and during the 1560s. Yet, in parallel with contemporary reactionary attempts at regulating social and moral capital through sumptuary legislation, they were both exceptional, and unsuccessful. Thus historians examining either definition face the same challenges in interpreting the complexities and inconsistencies inherent in understanding ‘occupation’.

The presentations all addressed a core set of questions, which while widely shared, pose challenges in reconciling the divergent conclusions that emerge. The questions can be grouped into three broad areas:

  • Structural Change. Macro-economic approaches focus upon change over time in large samples, often working with an implicit Smithian notion of specialisation and increasing economic complexity, and relying upon occupational description as an indicator of change.
  • Representation and Portrayal. The position of work within the formation of wider entities, as well as the variability of terminology throughout time, location, and as markers of status and power.
  • Networks and Lifecycles. Occupation as a fluctuating identity, reflecting changing circumstances of individuals, local communities and especially households.

These approaches each offer compelling conclusions, but the big question that emerged during the workshop is how they might speak to each other. There is a tendency for answers to one of these questions to present challenges to the others. For example, mixed or changing identity is a source of uncertainty in studies of structural change, just as the dynamic of structural change unseats attempts to explore ‘identity’ over time or space. Hopefully, by bringing together scholars working from these contrasting approaches, we can move towards new ways of addressing the question of historical occupations which might address these challenges.

For instance, the core approaches highlighted all emphasize the fact that occupation is less of a matter of individuals, but is rather a subject permeated by external factors including markets and employment structures, social and religious affiliations, changes in circumstances, abilities, and strength, and, perhaps especially, the influence of institutions. Papers examining the medieval period cast these external influences in a particularly clear light, including bakers’ delicate balancing of completing influences of market and assize, while the occupational origins of late medieval archers revealed the vexed questions of formal and implicit feudal obligation, age and strength. Less overt, but equally important, were questions of social credit, reputation, and brand, as seen in discussions of craftspeople operating in the fields of scientific instruments and fine art, as well as those facing failure in business and seeking to escape their debts.

The ‘landscape’ of occupations was highlighted in the sense that work and occupation can best be understood within the contextual environment of the other occupations and identities with which it co-existed. Moreover, occupational identities were negotiated, in all respects, in unique circumstances, and just as different terms could be used to describe the same ‘work’ in different contexts, so too could the same label carry different meanings in, for example, urban and rural settings. Papers focusing upon local case studies, such Newcastle keelmen, and Bristol medical practitioners highlighted the importance of contextual understanding and local variation to draw together these multiple and shifting influences, even when following broadly quantitative approaches.

Again addressing questions of both ‘work’ and ‘identity’ is the question of the skill content of occupations. On one level skill can be classified and ascribed to occupational identity, and was in many cases judged as such by contemporaries, as seen in the context of Portugal’s remarkably centralised yet contentious system of medical licensing. Yet, as Margaret Pelling emphasized in the keynote lecture, the varied nature of skills transmitted through apprenticeships included the ‘soft’ skills of social interaction and successful business judgement. How effective, and how definitive, was apprenticeship as the dominant western European means of occupational education?

While there seems little prospect of a single economic theory of occupation, as some might wish for, the workshop served as a wonderful opportunity to re-examine familiar people, trends, and events, in new lights. From the perspective of the ‘Medical World of Early Modern England, Wales and Ireland’ project, we have resolved both to increase the depth of local case studies to investigate qualitative differences within ostensibly equivalent occupational identities, and to exploit data that we have already collected to refocus upon medical practitioners as part of household and familial economies, as well as occupational inheritances and the lifecycle of medical training and occupation.

Full list of speakers and papers:

Human capital formation from occupations: The ‘deskilling hypothesis’ revisited
Alexandra M. de Pleijt, (Utrecht University) and Jacob L. Weisdorf, (University of Southern Denmark, Utrecht University and CEPR)

Civilians at war: English archers and their occupations 1350-1415
Sam Gibbs (University of Reading)

Debt and Occupation: The Trades of Debtors Imprisoned and Absconded in the 1720s
John Levin (University of Southampton)

‘Working lives and the historical record in Newcastle upon Tyne, 1600-1710’
Andy Burn (Durham University)

Movement and interconnectivity in the ‘scientific’ instrument trade of early modern London
Dr Alexi Baker (University of Cambridge)

Bakers and Occupational Specialisation, 1350-1550
James Davis (Queen’s University Belfast)

Managing uncertainty and privatizing apprenticeship: status and relationships in English medicine
Margaret Pelling (University of Oxford)

Medical career trajectories in Early Modern Portugal
Laurinda Abreu (University of Évora)

Medical Practice in Bristol, c. 1500 – c. 1800
Jonathan Barry (University of Exeter)

Plotting Practitioners: GIS and Spatial Patterns in Early Modern Medical Provision in England and Wales
Justin Colson (University of Exeter) and Patrick Wallis (London School of Economics)

Working from the local to the national. Reconstructing labour relations in the Northern Netherlands, c. 1600-1800

Daniëlle Teeuwen (International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam)

Early modern rural by-employments: a re-examination of the probate inventory evidence
Sebastian A. J. Keibek (presenting) and Leigh Shaw-Taylor (University of Cambridge)

‘The Honest Tradesman’s Honour’: Work and Identity in Seventeenth-Century England
Mark Hailwood (St Hilda’s, Oxford)

Occupational and religious identities: the example of the Johnson Company 1542-c.1557
Laura Branch (NUI Gallway)

Mary Beale, Artist 1633-1699
Sarah Birt (Birkbeck College)

Landcape of Occupations Conference – University of Exeter, 8th and 9th April 2014

Occupational identity and the economic activity of individuals have seen growing attention from historians and historical geographers over the past thirty or forty years. While earlier generations of historians, including Postan and Tawney, addressed occupational structure as an aspect of the general structure of agricultural and industrial production, researchers are increasingly focusing upon the question of economic activity from the perspective of the individual. It is increasingly recognized that occupational identity was neither definite, nor fixed. How did households combine economic strategies in response to opportunities, challenges, and natural cycles? How did economic and occupational identity change throughout an individual’s lifecycle? Indeed, how did occupational identity actually reflect economic activity?

This two day workshop brings together sixteen research papers by scholars from across the UK and western Europe, addressing the theme of occupation and identity from a range of angles ranging from demographic quantification to detailed biography. Central to all is the question of how work was defined, and how it in turn affected the lives of individuals in pre-modern Europe.

Plenary speaker: Dr Margaret Pelling, University of Oxford.

Registration is now open for delegates until 1st March, at a rate of £70 or £35 for registered postgraduates, including refreshments (day rates also available). Accommodation and an evening meal are also available for delegates.

Registration form available here:

Registration Form

Flyer available here:


New book by Professor Jonathan Barry, and additional source material.

The project is pleased to announce the publication of Raising Spirits: How a Conjuror’s Story was Transmitted across the Enlightenment (Palgrave: 2013) –

To accompany the publication, Professor Barry has compiled a transcript of all Perks’ letters used within the book, together with commentary and alternative versions and comparisons. It is hoped that this provides a useful companion to the volume for scholars.


Congratulations to Professor Barry on publication.

Finding a Good Home for Practitioners: the Final Fate of the Oxford Biographical Index

 I am very pleased to be involved in the Exeter project. As retirement approached, I was faced with the problem of what to do with over 22,000 cards of biographical information on medical practitioners of all sorts which I have been accumulating since the 1970s (aka the Biographical Index). I very much wanted this information to be generally available, but it seemed most likely that the cards would end up on a skip. Cards, 6 inches by 4 inches, are of course an antique technology and the chances of being able to convert them into an online resource seemed remote.

The Exeter project has changed all that. Work has already begun, with the help of Dr Frances White, on entering biographical data extracted years ago from the records of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company of London. This will be followed by the more varied data collected for London and East Anglia, especially Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire, but including parts of Yorkshire, Essex and Lincolnshire. Over the years I also collected stray practitioners from other locations for the Biographical Index if I found the information relating to them particularly interesting. Generally speaking, these individuals were obscure rather than represented in such sources as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The Biographical Index began under the supervision of Dr Charles Webster, then of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine in Oxford, building on the pioneering surveys by Wickersheimer, Talbot and Hammond, Raach, R. S. Roberts, Whittet, and others. We adopted an inclusive methodology which, rather than judging by modern standards, instead accepted the choices made by early modern people as to the usefulness of a given practitioner. We were more interested in the lower orders of practitioner – barber-surgeons, barbers, midwives, bonesetters, oculists, as well as more peripheral occupations such as distillers and druggists – than in the physicians and elite surgeons who have tended to leave the most extensive written records and who have attracted most attention from historians. We also adopted ‘medical practitioner’ as being the least misleading, the most inclusive, and the least judgemental term to apply to medical personnel of all kinds, and gave preference to ‘occupation’ rather than ‘profession’ in describing medical pursuits.

This approach involved piecing together scraps of information, each of them often frustratingly small, and it also entailed using a wide range of sources, most of them not obviously medical. It became evident that practitioners could crop up in almost any form of record – the problem was that of judging when the law of diminishing returns had set in. Other dilemmas emerged: for example, it became clear that our modern idea of the full-time, uniformly qualified professional was inapplicable, and that early modern practitioners were likely to occupy a range of trades as well as medicine, or to diversify into other means of making a living, or to engage in more than one part of medicine over a given lifetime. Knowing this increased the complications – and temptations – of identifying one individual with another of the same name. Additionally it  reinforced the suspicion that a person identified as a practitioner might well not have practised for the whole of his or her working life. Other lessons had to be learned, for example that ‘nurses’ in parish records had to be assumed to be wet-nurses rather than sick-nurses unless further evidence suggested otherwise; and that the term ‘doctor’ could be a snare and a delusion, leading to mare’s nests full of doctors of theology, doctors of canon or civil law, and practitioners who were not academically qualified as ‘doctors of physic’ but who had been granted the title of doctor by themselves or by their patients. There was also, usually, a distinction between ‘physician’ and ‘practitioner of physic’. By contrast, there seemed to be little difference between ‘surgeon’ and the now obsolete form ‘chirurgeon’. Allowance also had to be made for the fact that women, in particular, tended not to be accorded occupational labels and were known by what they did, not by what they were. Nonetheless, in spite of problems of definition it became possible to conclude that there was a surprisingly high ratio of practitioners per head of population, and that this almost infinite variety was in part created by the high level of demand among early modern people for medical care of all kinds.

 We focused on London and East Anglia because these were the most populated and best developed parts of the country in the early modern period, and tended to have the best levels of record survival. I found the Norwich records especially rewarding, and Norwich’s practitioners are perhaps the most thoroughly represented in the Biographical Index. By the same token, we concentrated on towns, small and large, although wills, licences, and other sources covering the countryside showed that practitioners, especially barbers, could be found even in very small villages. Provisional numbers of practitioners could be mapped for most places in Norfolk and Suffolk. It was also evident that Norwich practitioners went out into rural areas, especially to larger households, and that people were drawn to Norwich for medical care, including that provided by the poor law. Not all medical care was voluntary: Norwich employed a wide range of practitioners to treat the poor, partly as a public health measure, and this treatment could be compulsory.

The focus of my own research subsequently shifted from Norwich to London, and in particular the 700 or so ‘irregulars’ whom the London College of Physicians tried to suppress between 1550 and 1640. These were of all kinds, ranging from doctors of physic as well qualified as the Fellows of the College themselves, to apothecaries, barber-surgeons, ‘old women’, and alleged empirics or quacks. With the essential assistance of Dr White, the information from the College’s ‘Annals’ (or minutes) and other sources was lifted from the Biographical Index cards and transformed into a database, constructed according to the (relatively limited) software available in the 1990s. This, the ‘CPL Database’, is currently available via a link on the website of British History Online. The information it contains will ultimately be absorbed into the Exeter project.

Although the Biographical Index has proved to be an invaluable resource for my own research, it now looks technologically very primitive compared with what will be achieved by my Exeter colleagues. Maps and tables, which used to be either hand-drawn or laboriously reproduced from another source, can now be produced in an instant in a variety of colours and formats, and constantly updated. Searches are of course infinitely easier. The publications of local record societies, which are an essential basis for any research of this kind, can now be downloaded and rapidly assimilated. All these advances have made possible the wide scope of the Exeter project. To me it is especially welcome that Ireland and Wales will be covered, as both have been neglected in the past, partly because of the difficulties inherent in their surviving records. Perhaps best of all, everything will be available online to anyone who is interested. So great are the improvements in scale and technique that it is something of a relief to find that many of the issues of definition and interpretation do, in fact, remain the same.

Dr Margaret Pelling, Oxford

(For the Database of Physicians and Irregular Practitioners in London 1550-1640, assembled by Margaret Pelling and Frances White see: –

 For more information on, and uses of, the Biographical Index, see:

 (with C. Webster) ‘Medical Practitioners’, in Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century, ed. C. Webster (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979), pp. 165‑235

‘A Survey of East Anglian Medical Practitioners 1500-1640’, Local Population Studies, 25 (1980), 54-5

 ‘The Patient’s Choice: Identifying Medical Practitioners’, in P.L. Dickinson and S. Colwell (eds.), English Genealogical Congress. Selected Papers…1978 and 1984 (Society of Genealogists, London, 1986), pp. 137‑49

 The Common Lot: Sickness, Medical Occupations and the Urban  Poor in Early Modern England (Longman, London, 1998)

 Medical Conflicts in Early Modern London: Patronage, Physicians and Irregular Practitioners 1550-1640 (OxfordUniversity Press, Oxford, 2003)

Finding Medical Practitioners in Early Modern Britain.

History has been likened to dropping a bucket over the side of a ship, attached to a long chain. What comes up is a microcosm of life deep below the waves. So it is with an historical source. It offers a tiny little glimpse – a snapshot in time – of one particular event, or one person. On its own, though, it doesn’t give us a full picture. It is a frustrating fact but many people, in fact the majority of people, left little or no trace in the historical record. Even when one or two documents survive, it is often difficult to get much more than bare facts. Does this mean, though, that we shouldn’t bother even trying to piece together the lives of people in the past?

Our project is a study of medical practitioners in the early modern period. In fact, it is the largest concentrated study of practitioners probably yet undertaken in Britain. The aim is to try and identify all those engaged in the practice of medicine in England, Wales, Ireland and (later) Scotland between roughly 1550 and 1715. It is a massive undertaking. Who, for example, will be included? The list is enormous. Physicians, apothecaries, surgeons, barbers, barber-surgeons, chirurgeons, chymists, druggists, surgeon-apothecaries, cunning folk, medical entrepreneurs and quacks…and all points in between. Dr Peter Elmer, formerly of the Open University and now a senior research fellow at Exeter has already collected over 12,000 names, many with individual biographies. I’ve been charged with finding Welsh practitioners and, after eight months, the list already stands at more than 600 – and this for a country that reputedly had very few doctors. You can keep up with progress on the project at our website here:

How are these people being located? The majority of my work is done in archives and on online catalogues. At the moment it is the sheer number of practitioners coming to light that is most surprising. They were, quite literally, everywhere. The problem lies in the deficiency of records and their limitations in offering much more than a glimpse of an individual’s life. Parish registers, for example, are often the only record that someone ever existed. In some cases, they might contain occupational data, and this begins to give some context. The Montgomeryshire parish registers are a useful case in point, with around 60 references to medical practitioners between the dates noted above.


(Image of North Devon Parish registers: Copyright Devon County Council)

Amongst the Montgomeryshire names are men like Arthur Jones of Berriew, a barber who died in 1697, Richard Evans of Brithdir “Physition” who died in 1701 and John Humphreys of Llanfechain, “chirurgeon” who died in 1660. Given that occupational data in parish registers is relatively rare, it seems fair to assume that recorded occupations suggest that these were the primary occupations of the people concerned. In each case, however, these are the only references to each man that I can find. No further evidence of their practice, their social status or indeed their lives, can be firmly established. At the very least though, and when aggregated, even this bare data does begin to allow us to see something of the landscape of medical practice in a given area. In Montgomeryshire, for example, is a rare reference to the occupation of midwife – one Catherine Edward of Glynceiriog, who died and was buried in April 1688. Midwives seldom appear in the historical record in Wales, so even brief references are interesting.

In other cases, though, it is possible to build up a broader picture of an individual practitioner’s life. The baptisms of children give both an indication of family formation as well as placing a person within a given area for a fixed number of years. Richard Ellis, for example, was a barber in Newtown, now in Powys. No record can be found for his birth or death, but the baptisms of his children William, Sarah and George between 1732 and 1737, in each of which he was referred to as a barber, tell us that he was at least practising between those dates. Also, it might be inferred (although by no means certain) that this was at the earlier end of his career given that children tended to be associated with marriage and the establishment of a household. The Newtown apothecary Thomas Kitchen provides a similar example, with the baptisms of his children Edward, Eusebius and Margaret between 1733 and 1737. Whilst we can’t tell anything about his business from this, we can at least fix him both geographically and temporally.

Other types of sources can unwittingly provide testimony to the businesses and social networks of medical practitioners. Wills and probate inventories can certainly be revealing about shop contents but, by looking further at things like the names of benefactors and even the signatories to wills it is possible to discern networks. In early-modern Wrexham, for example, a cluster of seventeenth-century wills reveal close links between practitioners in the same town, suggested by debts but also by their acting as executors or appraisers for colleagues. In some cases, for example that of Godfrey Green of Llanbeblig, died 1699, his entire shop and business found its way into the possession of another apothecary, John Reynolds, where it was still described as being the shop goods formerly of Godfrey Green when Reynolds himself died in 1716.

(Image of Cardiff from the North West: Used under creative commons licence, Wikipedia)

The best evidence can often be found where a picture can be built up using a variety of different documents. I’m currently working on an article about medical practitioners in early-modern Cardiff and especially their role within the early modern urban environment. Town records are generally better than for rural areas, but it is interesting to note the depth to which medical practitioners were often involved in town business. One Edward Want of Cardiff, an “barber-chirurgeon”, appears variously in documents in the second half of the seventeenth century. From parish registers we have his dates of birth and death, as well as the fact that he took over his business from his father of the same name. From hearth tax records we can tell that he was based in the affluent West Street area of the town, while a 1666 town survey further reveals that he was charged 6d  half a burgage in that area – the small plot probably indicating a shop. At some point he had occupied a mansion house near the corn market, a fact attested to by a land lease document, further suggesting wealth and status. References in the wills of two other Cardiff traders indeed refer to him as an Alderman, and Cardiff borough records also list him as a juror. We can also tell that his son Sierra Want was apprenticed to a Bristol barber surgeon, a common practice for the sons of middling-sort South Walians. Whilst his will contains nothing  of his medical practice, the use of a variety of documents can help us build up a real picture of the commercial and personal life of Edward Want.

In pulling the bucket up from the depths it is often difficult to glean much more than the barest facts; we often need more to really start to close in on the lives of our early-modern forebears. With practice, a little ingenuity and a great deal of luck though, even the smallest of extra facts help us to piece together a picture not just of how many people were practising medicine in Britain, and perhaps especially in rural Britain where records are fewer, but also something of their lives, occupations and statuses within their communities.

Alun Withey

(This post has appeared in an altered form on – apologies for cross-posting.)

Database now operating!

Let battle commence! After months of hard work by Dr Justin Colson and colleagues at the IHR in London, our project database is now up and running and ready to start accepting the legions of early-modern practitioners that we expect to find.

Archival work is well underway and all members of the team are busy collating source material to construct what will be a huge resource. The numbers of practitioners already located in early-modern Wales, for example, a country traditionally thought of as extremely deficient in terms of medical practice, already stands at over 600, with the vast majority of Welsh archives still to be consulted.

With the database in place, each member of the team will now be better able not only to collect source material ‘in the field’ but to analyse and compare the data in various new and exciting ways.



Questions of Practice…and Practical Questions by Dr Peter Elmer

During the course of the next few years, we hope that our project will shed light on a whole host of issues and problems related to the role of medicine and medical practitioners in early modern society and culture.  Members of the project team share a range of interests. For some, the statistical data relating to a whole panoply of issues will provide fascinating evidence for the nature and diversity of practice across the British Isles. The inclusion of Wales and Ireland, in particular, offers a fascinating opportunity to explore the medical worlds of two nations that have previously been largely ignored by historians of medicine. It also provides the chance to investigate the degree to which interaction occurred across national and geographical boundaries, as well as between the regions and the centre in England.

 At the current time, my own area of special interest has focused on the religious and political dimensions of medicine in the early modern period. In particular, I believe that the vast amount of new and detailed information that has already been gathered makes it possible to reassess the on-going debate over the ideological roots of medical change in early modern Britain. The consensus remains, founded largely on the pioneering work of Charles Webster and Harold Cook, that medical innovation in Britain, be it in relation to medical thinking or medical practice, was largely inspired by puritanism. More recently, Margaret Pelling has argued that the nascent medical ‘profession’ was, if anything, largely apolitical, members preferring to avoid office-holding at all levels. On the basis of evidence gleaned from the project, I believe that it is now possible to re-assess some of these claims and to propose a different account of the way in which religion and politics helped to shape medicine and medical change in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

 Generally speaking, I have found little evidence to suggest that medical change was the monopoly of any one religious or political body. The situation, of course, is further complicated by the on-going debate over nomenclature (in particular that relating to definitions of such a slippery term as ‘puritanism’, and how it changed over time). Nevertheless, new evidence suggests that those of a distinctly anti-puritan stance were just as likely to promote new ideas in medical thinking, and new attitudes to the organization of medicine, in the key period after 1640. Many Anglican royalists, who opted to study medicine rather than pursue a clerical career in the 1650s, would appear to have been receptive to the chemical medicines and philosophy of iconoclasts such as Paracelsus and van Helmont. After the Restoration, when many returned to the Church, they continued to study and promote such ideas. Renewed focus on the period after 1660, in particular the role of the restored king, Charles II, and leading figures in the church such as archbishop Sheldon, also suggests a great enthusiasm in royalist-Anglican circles for the medicine of van Helmont and a willingness to promote institutional change. The failure of the Society of Chemical Physicians in 1665 to usurp the authority of the London College of Physicians – a body that was seen by some as puritanically inclined after 1660 – did not prefigure an end to official encouragement for change. Charles II’s court was dominated by chemical physicians, and new attempts to overthrow the monopolistic authority of the College of Physicians resurfaced in the 1670s.

 While puritanism then does not seem to have acted as the chief catalyst for medical reform in the 17th century, the evidence from the database strongly points to the period from 1640 to 1660 as a key moment in the creation of a new atmosphere in society receptive to medical innovation and speculation. While no one group monopolized such attitudes, the period did witness one further important development. From 1640 onwards, there is a mass of evidence to suggest that the medical ‘profession’ was becoming increasingly politicized, and that this politicization took numerous forms. One of the most interesting concerns office-holding, at both local and national level. Whereas prior to 1640, as Maggie Pelling has shown, physicians rarely took on political office, thereafter they were to do so in considerable numbers, a process that was further accelerated in the years after 1660. By 1700, it was quite common for medics to sit as aldermen in their local corporations, and to assume the office of mayor. Medical men, then, were no more immune from the political events of the period after 1640, and they played their part in such developments in a variety of ways, which I hope to explore in future publications and talks*. At the same time, the politicization of the medical ‘profession’ impacted, in subtle ways, on medicine itself. While, I suggest, it is no longer possible to argue for a straightforward correlation between medical progress on the one hand, and a single religious or political group on the other, there are grounds to suggest that medical thinking was shaped by the wider political and religious currents of the age.

*  upcoming: Peter Elmer, ‘Medicine, Religion and the Politics of Healing in Early Modern England’, King’s College, London, Strand campus, Wednesday 6 February 2013, at 6.00pm.