The Language of the Age:

Depictions of Medicine in Graphic Satire

A Sore Throat

H. Pyall (fl. 1833) artist

A Sore Throat
(London: Thomas McLean, 1827)

From the Manfred Kraemer Collection of Medical Prints and Satires
Gift of the Maine Medical Center to the Harvard Medical School, 1992


 

Graphic satire is the art of caricature presented in a printed image. Derived from the Italian word, caricare, to exaggerate or overload, the caricature distorts images, usually of people, to make a point or to create a comic effect.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries graphic satire enjoyed great popularity in Britain. Mary Dorothy George, author of the Catalog of Prints and Drawings of the British Museum and renowned expert on satirical prints, wrote that,

Satire was the language of the age...In the eighteenth century there was a great vogue for satirical prints- political and social. This was the golden age of the English engraver...caricature shops had a popularity of their own. Their prints were virtually the only pictorial rendering of the flow of events, moods and fashions. Especially, they reflect the social attitudes of the day.

This was the time of the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. Rapid and significant changes in politics, economics, social structure, religious values, and scientific knowledge created uncertainty and anxiety among the public. The emerging managerial and professional classes that included politicians, lawyers, artists, academics, scientists and physicians rose in power and status, and became targets of public disquiet. Graphic satire was one means of expressing social anxiety that allowed criticism of the emerging elite. The most successful artists such as Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray, and the Cruikshanks used the medium of the print to put forth their political, social and moral critiques.

 


 

Graphic Satire and Medicine

 

A Pair of Pretty Ones

Anonymous

A Pair of Pretty Ones
(London: Laurie and Whittle, 1794)

Boston Medical Library

 

Doctors and disease were popular subjects for satirists. In keeping with broader social, political, and economic change, medical knowledge in the 18th century underwent rapid and significant transformation. Ancient models of classical humoral pathology began to crumble in the face of modern theories based upon scientific method. But the growing body of medical knowledge would not begin to produce effective treatments for many years. Bleeding, purging, and other "heroic" measures, remnants of earlier medical practice, persisted well into the nineteenth century.

Expanding scientific and medical knowledge was reflected in the growing social status of physicians. But the reality that medicine had yet to provide significant improvement in the treatment of disease and suffering made physicians easy targets for comparison to other powerful but not always effective members of society such as politicians. Satirists often used contemporary ailments of individuals such as consumption, gout, indigestion and depression as metaphors for the greater social and political ills of society.

 


 

 

William Hogarth 1697-1764


William Hogarth is commonly known as the father of English caricature and graphic satire. In his own words he documented "the customs, manners, fasheons, Characters, and humours" of his world. Hogarth was a compassionate proponent of morality and values, and protested against social injustice and cruelty. His works were known for their great dramatic sequences. Though Hogarth preceded the Great Age of English graphic satire, his influence on other artists is unmistakable. His work opened the door for others to follow as the 18th century progressed.

 

William Hogarth (1697-1764), artist

In Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam)

(London: Published for the Artist, 1735)
In Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam)

From the Manfred Kraemer Collection of Medical Prints and Satires
Gift of the Maine Medical Center to the Harvard Medical School, 1992

Published as the last of a series of eight engravings entitled, A Rake's Progress, this print depicts the story of Tom Rakewell, a wealthy youth who squanders his inheritance because of immorality, carelessness and greed. As he descends into madness, the manacled Rakewell is lead to confinement in an asylum for the destitute and insane.

 

For an enlarged version of the text in the print click here.


 

John Doyle, 1797-1868

John Doyle was born in Dublin and studied art there until he moved to London in 1822 where he initially worked as a portrait lithographer. In 1827 Doyle began publishing political prints anonymously. From 1829-1851 Doyle published his well-known Political Sketches series. He signed this work with the initials "HB" to hide his identity and to generate more interest in his work. Doyle published almost one thousand prints in this series.

 

 

John Doyle (1797-1868), artist

A Cure for the Gout

(London: C. Matte, n.d.)


A cure for the Gout

Boston Medical Library

In this political commentary, Doyle uses gout as a metaphor for the discomfort of the political party that has long been out of favor. When Lord Holland discovers that his party, the Whigs, have been returned to power his gout is cured. Lord Holland declares, "Here-take my crutch and off with these flannels!- I have no further use for them (at present). Then order the carriage-I must away to town immediately!! His servant responds, "The letter seems to have completely cured my Lord's gout, which he has had so badly which he has had ever since the opening of Parliament- I'd lay a wager there is a change in the Ministry!!

 


 

John Doyle (1797-1868), artist

A Case of Indigestion

(London: Thomas McLean, 1834)

A case of Indigestion

Boston Medical Library

 

In this satire Doyle depicts the Duke of Gloucester with a case of indigestion. The Duke is apparently unaware that of his discomfort is caused by his host's insults at dinner as the doctor states, "Something in the Chancellor's dinner has certainly disagreed with you."

 

 

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