Attitudes to Health

Bills of Mortality

London, 1665


‘London's Dreadful Visitation Or, A Collection of All the Bills of Mortality for this Present Year; Beginning the 27th of December 1664, and ending the 19th of December following…’ So proclaims this paper bill of mortality produced during the Great Plague of 1665-1666.

The bill is decorated around the border with images of death, including skeletons, skull and cross-bones, and shovels. The imposing skull at the top of the sheet is crowned with a winged hour-glass and wrapped in a banner stating ‘Memento Mori'. This is a Latin phrase which translates as "Remember your mortality", " or "Remember you will die".

The Great Plague of London, lasting from 1665-1666, was the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague or Black Death to occur in the Kingdom of England (modern day England and Wales). During the great outbreak, special bills of mortality were issued that listed causes of death. The increasing numbers of deaths were reported on handbills that were stuck up in public places to warn people that the plague was spreading. The Great Plague killed an estimated 100,000 people, which was about 20% of London's population.

The Quack Doctor

Thomas Rowlandson, 1814

LDRPS: PZ164Hand coloured etching and aquatint, entitled 'The Quack Doctor', drawn and etched by Thomas Rowlandson and published by Rudolph Akermann in 1814.

While a satire on the dubious nature of medicine in the early 1800s, 'The Quack Doctor' also depicts the public interior of an apothecary shop and the equipment in use at the time. The apothecary in 'The Quack Doctor' is shown standing behind the dispensing counter, decanting a liquid into a medicine bottle via a funnel. Behind the counter are shelves of carboys, wet and dry drug jars (all labelled with poisons: CANTHARI, ARSENIC, OPIUM, NITRE, VITRIOL), and a drug run. More bottles, a small composition mortar and pestle, and a wet drug jar line the counter.

Over the doorway is painted "Apothecaries Hall". Patients crowd in and one is startled to see, behind a curtain, that the apothecary's assistant is a skeleton mixing a preparation in a large bell metal mortar labelled 'SLOW POISON'.

Below the drawing is lettered, "I have a secret art to cure, Each malady which men endure".

Staffordshire Pottery Bear's Grease Jug

Napoleonic Bear Design, Early 19th Century

LDRPS: YBC1This unusual Staffordshire pottery jug was originally used for storing bear’s grease, a hair restoring pomade.

The seated bear grasps in its forepaws a caricature figure of Napoleon Bonaparte, wearing his characteristic bicorne hat and carrying a club. The bear is glazed in rather fetching brown and ochre.

Bear’s grease became a popular hair restoring pomade (a preparation for dressing the hair) during the second half of the 1700s, when the wearing of wigs fell out of fashion.

Originally made from bear fat and perfumed with rose oil, bear’s grease was applied to the hair under the belief that it both revived and strengthened hair growth.

Bear’s grease remained popular until the early 1900s.



William Heath, 1829


Hand coloured etching entitled 'Faith', probably designed and engraved by William Heath, and published by S. Gans of Southampton Street, London in 1829.

'Faith' is a satire questioning doctors’ knowledge and their ability to treat their patients effectively with the limited medicines available at the time.

It depicts a thin man standing by a window. He faces the viewer with an anguished expression as he takes a dose of medicine from the spoon in his left hand; he holds the medicine bottle in his right. The table beside him, and floor beneath it, are covered with full and empty medicine bottles and boxes of "PILLS".

The caption below the patient addresses the viewer; "Bolus says that the last thirty doses have done me a World of good! I do’nt [sic] think so myself, but certainly the Doctor must know best".


Henry William Bunbury, 1774


Hand coloured etching entitled 'MUTUAL ACCUSATION'. Designed by Henry William Bunbury, engraved and published by James Bretherton in 1774.

During this period manufacturers would frequently claim that only their medicine was genuine, and that other similar preparations were an inferior ‘quack’ copy.

In 'Mutual Accusation' both quacks are rival manufacturers of antiscorbutic pills, with shops opposite one another. The shop sign on the left is lettered, "DR WALKERS VERITABLE ANTISCORBUTIC PILLS. Beware of impostors", the sign on right, "TRUE antiscorbutic PILLS". 

The rival quacks, their wives, and their dogs and cats each fight one another in the street between their two competing premises.


James Gillray, 1800


The second in a series of 5 hand-coloured etchings depicting Georgian medicinal treatments. Etched by James Gillray, published by H. Humphrey in 1804. Entitled:

1. 'Brisk - CATHARTIC.'
2. 'Taking PHYSIC'
3. 'Breathing a vein'
4. 'Gentle EMETIC'
5. 'Charming - well again'

This set of prints, produced by the famous caricaturist James Gillray in 1804, illustrate the typical sequence of medicinal treatments that a patient would have to endure during the Georgian period, a time when they were still mainly based on the humoral theory of medicine.

Gillray’s depiction of facial expression reveal that many patients at the time considered the remedies worse than the medical conditions they were intended to ‘cure’.

The Head ache

Engraved by George Cruikshank, 1819

LDRPS: PZ7Hand coloured etching, entitled 'The Head ache', designed by Capt. Frederick Marryat, engraved by George Cruikshank, and published by G. Humphrey in 1819.

'The Headache' shows a man slumped in an armchair by the fire, holding a medicine bottle. Grimacing in pain and despair, with upturned eyes, he is tormented by six little demons who attack his head with a red-hot poker, auger drill, bit, mallet and wedge. One demon sings loudly from a music-book in one ear, while another blows a trumpet in his other. Here the demons are personified metaphors for the pain that the patient is suffering from.

The devil, demons and other imaginary figures were a familiar device used by artists, notably George Cruikshank, where the patient's condition is highlighted by these imaginary figures who torment them.

Paper Leaflet for Sequah’s Prairie Flower

Circa 1910


Paper leaflet for the patented Sequah's Prairie Flower dating to the early 20th Century.

Sequah was a Native American inspired persona used by William Henry Hartley from Yorkshire, in order to sell health tonics. He promoted Prairie Flower, and other remedies, by travelling around the UK and Ireland, impersonating the Native American character. The spectacle grew and soon he was accompanied by brass bands and fairground rides. He would invite members of the audience on stage to be miraculously cured.

In 1889 the ingredients to Prairie Flower had been discovered to be little more than vegetable extract and alcohol. Yet the remedies remained popular until 1897 when he was featured in a series of articles called Exposures of Quackery. By the early 20th Century the Sequah Medicine Company was liquidated.