Spa therapy in Stuart and Georgian England at Tunbridge Wells

Water from natural springs has been used therapeutically since antiquity. In the Christian pre-Reformation era the healing properties were often ascribed to the power of the saint to who they were dedicated and so the waters became the object of pilgrimage.

In the mid-sixteenth century Paracelsus (1493-1541) proposed the use of specific minerals in medicine. In England there were wells containing salt, sulphur or iron, known colloquially as salt, stinking or tart. An example of the last was discovered in woodland near Tonbridge in 1605 by Dudley, Lord North (1581-1666).

To promote its use he arranged for clearance of the land, the erection of lodgings and medical publicity with the publication of The Queen’s Wells in 1632 by Ludovick Rowzee, a physician from nearby Ashford.

The advertising was so successful that soon royalty attended. All the Stuart rulers, followed by Queen Mary II and her sister Queen Anne, came for fertility problems mainly associated with the difficulties of producing a male heir. The fashionable attended as it was not too far from London, situated in pleasant countryside and it boasted good facilities for therapy and entertainment.

It was suggested that you should consult your home doctor before travelling as Tunbridge did not accept children, those terminally ill nor those with infectious diseases. On arrival you would be met by Beau Nash (1674-1761) who attended each summer to arrange the entertainments of dancing, gambling and theatre. He would solicit a contribution to their costs.

Next would be a visit to the spa doctor who would recommend your individual regimen. This would include advice concerning bleeding, purging, diet, rest, exercise and moderation in alcohol intake. At Tunbridge one drank the waters rather than bathed in them. Your spa doctor would prescribe your own intake which could be up to eight pints. This would be taken before breakfast, starting with a small dose and working up to the maximum after at least a fortnight and then slowly decreasing again.

Having returned to your lodgings, breakfasted and dressed in one’s finery, you would spend the day at leisure. This could include socialising on the walks near the well, shopping, getting a book from the lending library or attending a long sermon at the local church. Gentlemen might read the daily papers and smoke at the pipe shop. The evening could be spent enjoying Nash’s diversions.

Much of the literature stated that if your ailment was not cured it was either because you had not drunk enough or that you were too mean and your stay was too short to let the waters have their effect.

John Ford

Apothecaries’ 400th Anniversary

English Apothecary Shop 17th Century after Faithorne. Undated illustration

December 6th 2017 saw the 400th anniversary of the granting of a Royal Charter by King James 1 to the Apothecaries and signalled their legal freedom from the Grocers Company. It has colloquially been called Grexit.

The Grocers had always imported the raw materials for making medicines in bulk, en grosse, hence their name. Within the Company, one of the oldest and richest London Livery Companies, there had always been a group who were more interested in compounding medicaments and filling prescriptions rather than in the business of grocery.  By the early seventeenth century this group wanted to form a company of their own which would have the power to regulate apothecaries’ work and police the purity of the drugs they made.

This secessionist group was led by Gideon de Laune, the son of William de Laune a Reformed Church minister and physician who had escaped the Huguenot persecution in France in 1572 and had settled in Blackfriars. Gideon was Apothecary to Anne of Denmark, James’s wife. Also attending the Royal family were Theodore de Mayerne (1573-1654), another Protestant refugee from France and Anne’s Physician, and Henry Atkins (1558-1635) President of the Royal College of Physicians 1607/8 and 1616/17. Atkins wanted the College to have more control over the apothecaries and thought that this could be obtained if they were separate from the Grocers.

Gideon de Laune by Cornelius Johnson 1593-1661

In 1610 the grocer-apothecaries promoted a Bill in Parliament for separation for the Grocers. This fell when Parliament was dissolved in 1611. A second attempt was made in 1614, signed by seventy-six grocer-apothecaries, but this again failed with Parliament’s dissolution. It was called the Addled Parliament and only sat for six weeks. The King acceded to a new apothecaries’ petition in 1615 and a charter was drawn up for royal signature which was delayed by wrangling among the Crown’s legal officers. In the summer of 1617 Bacon was made Regent of England while James made his first visit to Scotland since his accession. Bacon prepared a third charter which was signed on James’ return.

The legal work in preparing the apothecaries’ case was most skilfully done and it has always been thought that this was under the guidance of Francis Bacon. On Bacon’s fall from grace in 1624 he acknowledged that he had received financial favours from both parties to the dispute.

The Grocers backed by the Mayor and City of London fought the secessionists vigorously with petitions and counter claims.  However the drive and ambition of de Laune, underpinned with excellent legal advice and backed by Royal favour and the President of the Royal College of Physicians, ensured that the Apothecaries had their own Society.

John Ford

Finding the “missing link”

Historians will be familiar with the challenges of researching an archive: sifting through a pile of dusty records, drawing a blank in a confusing catalogue, or scoring hundreds of hits searching an electronic database. With the help of an archive expert, however, the rewards outweigh the effort required.

When preparing for my presentation on English medical researcher Dr Annie Homer at the recent BSHM Congress in Edinburgh, I wanted to find out more about her time in Canada at the start of the First World War. In particular, she had served as the Assistant Director of the University of Toronto’s Antitoxin Laboratory, the forerunner of the Connaught Laboratories.

Extract from Antitoxin Laboratory Record of Diphtheria Antitoxin Refining, dated Sept 28th, 1914 [SPC Archives 83-006-01]

I contacted Dr Christopher Rutty, professional medical and public health historian, and consultant to Sanofi Pasteur Canada’s Connaught Campus in Toronto, where the original buildings and archive documents are preserved as part of the country’s medical heritage. By return e-mail, Chris sent me a copy of a lab notebook, which contained several pages written in Homer’s distinctive hand, revealing her work at the start of the war. The preservation of this “missing link” was a stroke of good fortune.

The Connaught Laboratories, University of Toronto, officially opened on Oct 25th, 1917 [SPC Archives 0591]

The Connaught Laboratories were established in 1917 to make up a shortfall of tetanus antitoxin needed by the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and became the site of pioneering advances in the production of vaccines, heparin and insulin. More information is available via The Legacy Project which can be viewed online at

Edward J Wawrzynczak

Oral Histories of Physicians

Former RCP treasurer, Dr John Bennett, taken in 1958 when he was a junior doctor and suffering from glandular fever (he looks very cheerful on it!).

Forty-five life story oral history interviews with members and fellows of the Royal College of Physicians of London are now accessible remotely through the RCP Library Catalogue. Researchers can access the recordings plus a full transcript or detailed summary by following the link below.

The recordings cover a wide variety of topics, including medical education, working life in the NHS, diagnostics, treatments and drug therapies in a variety of medical specialties, and the enormous changes seen in both the practice and management of medicine since the end of WWII. While inevitably we have interviewed RCP presidents, treasurers and registrars the collection also contains many stories of physicians who have had only minimal contact with the college but have done important work in district general hospitals throughout the UK.

Oral history is a particularly useful historical source for exploring how individuals experienced certain events or changes, and this is certainly true of the RCP collection. Interviewees talk of the exhaustion, fear and excitement of their time as house officers, of the wonder and trepidation of using new drugs for the first time, and of patients they will never forget. We have heard stories of physicians carrying out dangerous experiments on themselves and their colleagues and the feelings in the profession at the introduction of ethics committees. Interviewees have also shared their thoughts and experiences of the introduction of different government policies, the change from the firm to the shift system, the impact of Modernising Medical Careers and the impact of the NHS Internal Market System.

My favourite extracts from the collection are;

Dr Norman Jones reflecting back on setting up the first renal dialysis unit at St. Thomas’ Hospital,

Sir Colin Berry on the changes in doctor / patient communication during his career,

and a short compilation with Dr Virginia Camp, Professor Christine Lee and Professor Clare Fowler talking about their experiences of applying for medical school.

For more information on the collection please contact Sarah Lowry:

To access the interviews go to: and click on <<Oral History: Voices of Medicine>> under <<Key Collections>>.

Sarah Lowry
RCP London

What looks primitive now was “cutting edge” then.

I recently presented a webinar for the British Institute of Radiology, looking at the developments of X-ray tubes. These tubes were developed in the 19th century and many contributed, including Michael Faraday and William Crookes. Whilst writing my talk I had several thoughts.

It is easy to look at early apparatus and see it as primitive, and the scientific issues involved appear quite straightforward. However this apparatus, which seems so basic to us was cutting edge science at the time. Little was known about what was actually going on in these tubes, and what the cathode rays actually were. It’s interesting to consider why Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, and why they had not been discovered earlier. The tubes used by William Crookes in the 1870s would have produced X-rays, although they were not demonstrated. It was really only a matter of time before X-rays were discovered, however this should in no way diminish the genius of Röntgen. However William Crookes, Phillip von Lenard, or the Americans AW Goodspeed and William Jennings were all in a position to make the discovery. In Röntgen’s famous phrase, after he had observed something unusual “I did not think, I investigated”!

Cutting edge radiology apparatus in 1896, from Practical Radiography by H Snowdon Ward.
The picture shows the induction coil and battery with the X ray tube above

It also very difficult to put ourselves into the 19th century mindset. G W C Kaye writing in his classic X-Rays: An Introduction to the Study of Röntgen Rays (1919) wrote “In the early nineties (1890s), it was not infrequently maintained that the science of physics had put its house in complete order, and that any future advances could only be along the line of precision measurement.” In 1895 Charles Thurstan Holland had expressed similar sentiments regarding surgery. The discoveries of X-rays, followed in 1896 by the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel turned everything upside down, leading to a revolution in the scientific understanding of both of the world and of ourselves. This is the reason why I find the period from the early 1890s leading up to the First World War so very fascinating. In comparison, whilst things have changed since my student days, the transformation has not compared in scale to that earlier period.

My final thought when preparing for my webinar is as to why some figures are plucked out for fame, and others remain obscure? Coolidge,  Crookes, and Röntgen are well known; and yet A Bouwers who made major contributions to radiology remains undeservedly obscure.

Finally a webinar is a great means of communication, and is one the BSHM should utilise.

Adrian Thomas
Past-President BSHM