Monday, 29 October 2012

Politics and Pills – an 1820 Medical Bill: Part 2

This is my second post about the 1820 medical bill I recently bought on eBay. You can read Part 1 of the post here.


1820 medical bill


The first thing that struck me when I saw the bill was that it covered a long period of time. The first entry was for treatment on 17 July 1817 and the last for treatment on 7 March 1820. I already knew that, during the Regency period, it was common for wealthy people to run up extensive debts with tradesmen, who often weren’t paid for years. I did not realise that this practice also extended to professional accounts.

In his covering letter, Dr Lowe said that he was “taking the liberty” of sending the account – suggesting that it was almost considered improper to ask for payment. My cousin in Canada has kindly sent me a copy of a letter, written to Dr Lowe in January 1819, in which a friend said, “I made particular enquiries about you & it gave me sincere pleasure to learn that you were so well employed & in such high estimation with the first class of society”. No doubt Dr Lowe was gratified to hear this but, if “the first class of society” were all so dilatory in settling their bills, it must have been difficult for him to support his growing family.


Dr John Lowe


Dr John Lowe was born in 1781, the eldest son of Robert Lowe, laird of Chapelton, Tullymet, Perthshire, an estate in the parish of Logierait, comprising a number of farms which had once belonged to the Duke of Atholl. For three years, from 1794 to 1797, John was apprenticed to Dr Alexander Stewart, a surgeon in Dunkeld, and in 1799 he was a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, although he never took a degree.

John joined the East India Company as an Assistant Surgeon and had just arrived back from a voyage to the East Indies when, in 1801, his father unexpectedly died. John inherited a considerable amount of landed property from his father but it was encumbered with debt and he was eventually forced to sell it. John left the Company’s service after his second voyage and in 1803 was working as a surgeon and druggist in Perth. By 1807 he had moved to Coupar Angus.

John Lowe married Janet Gillespie in Perth in 1806 and they had one child, Elizabeth, born in Coupar Angus in 1807. Following Janet’s death, John married Marjory Clark in Coupar Angus in 1810 and they had 13 children between 1811 and 1832. I am descended from their second son, John.


Calomel Pills


Returning to the bill, the next thing I noticed was that the bill contained three entries for “Calomel pills”, supplied in March 1818 and in March and December 1819. I had never heard of this medicine before and vaguely supposed it was something to do with calamine. Imagine my horror on learning from Wikipedia that it was actually mercurous chloride, a poisonous compound of mercury. Before the age of modern medicine, calomel was widely used as a laxative and purgative and was even given to teething babies!

Charles Tennant noted in his book, “The Radical Laird”:

George Kinloch had his own ideas about health and hygiene and, for most people, his advice was a good dose of "Dr Calomel”, as he attributed the usual complaints to constipation. “I wish you would get a box of calomel pills, three grains in each, of which you might take one when you have occasion for it. It is the best of all physic, and if taken in time often prevents serious diseases.”

In the summer of 1815 George wrote to his wife from London:

“I have been in perfect health since I left you, till Sunday last, when I had an attack of bile, which has not yet left me. I mean tonight to apply to Dr Calomel, who will rid me of it.”

The day on which Dr Lowe supplied him with his last prescription for calomel – 8 December 1819 – was the day before George left Kinloch for Edinburgh to prepare for his trial. He obviously wanted to take some of his favourite medicine with him – probably fearing a prison term - and Dr Lowe must have been one of the last people in the district to see George Kinloch before he left his home, not to return for over three years.


Use of the dental key


The bill also includes charges for bleeding – another horrific medical practice of the time – and for extracting teeth. Extraction was the normal way of dealing with persistent toothache and with problems such as abscesses which would nowadays be treated with antibiotics. The tooth was removed using an instrument called a dental key and, of course, it was done without any form of anaesthetic. I imagine the toothache must have been pretty bad before anyone would invite Dr Lowe to visit them with his dental key!

The bill covers treatment not just for George Kinloch but also for Mr Gray (a relative of the Smyths) and for two of George’s daughters. Ann was 17 when she had her tooth extracted and Eliza 16 when she was vaccinated. The vaccination took place a month before George’s family left to join him in Paris. 24 years after Jenner’s first vaccination, smallpox epidemics were still occurring in crowded cities. Sadly, Eliza contracted another scourge of crowded cities – tuberculosis – and died shortly after her return from Paris in 1822.


  1. Happy 2 Year Blogiversary. I celebrate my 2 Month Blogiversary this month.

    Regards, Grant

  2. Thank you for your kind comment, Grant. I've been so busy working this past week that I haven't had a chance to write a blogiversary post. Many congratulations on your own upcoming blogiversary. I've just visited your blog and am blown away by the beautiful design!