The Aged Patient in Early Modern England

Amie Bolissian Mcrae provides a tantalising glimpse into the subject of her new Wellcome Trust-funded PhD project, ‘The Aged Patient in Early Modern England’. The PhD builds on her MA dissertation, which was awarded the Royal Historical Society’s Rees Davies Prize for the best MA dissertation in the whole of the UK!

Jan Lievens, Old Woman in Profile, c.1630


By Amie Bolissian Mcrae @

‘Old age must have been pretty rare in the past, so how can you study it?’ This is the response I often hear when I tell people about my MA dissertation and forthcoming doctoral project, ‘The Aged Patient in Early Modern England’. It’s just not true, however! Approximately twenty percent of the adult population was aged over sixty during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was common to have living grandparents, and to harbour hopes of living to a ‘good old age’ of seventy or more. Men and women worried about the illnesses of their ageing parents and loved ones, and paid avid attention to their own ailments as they aged.

‘An old woman gives a physician an urine sample for him to test. Woodcut by J. Amman, 1574?’ by Jost Amman. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Here is an example. On her birthday in 1716, the Hertfordshire grandmother, Lady Sarah Cowper, wrote with trembling hands:

‘I am now 72 years of Age, very Crazie and Infirm, Lame with Rhumatick Pains in my Thighs … I now despair of ever getting Rid of It … Also my Hands Shake with the Palsey. I am Dull of Hearing, Dim of sight, and What Is worse a Cough Disturbs me Night and day; so as Life itself no Rellish Dos Afford’.1

This poignant diary entry, which first sparked my interest in what it was like to be old and unwell in the early modern period, raises questions that will be addressed in my new Wellcome Trust-funded PhD. How common was Lady Sarah’s gloomy attitude to infirmity in old age? What sensations, emotions, and spiritual feelings did the illnesses and weaknesses of old age evoke? Did patients and their loved ones seek remedies for the ‘accidents of old age’, or did they regard declining health as inevitable and untreatable, as some historians have implied? Who looked after elderly patients, and how did carers feel about this role? Finally, what was old age in a medical context? Was it seen as a natural process of decline, or a disease in its own right, with specific symptoms like watery eyes and brittle bones?

‘An old woman falling asleep over reading a book. Etching after Rembrandt.’ 1600s. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Through examining a wide range of printed and manuscript sources, my PhD will investigate medical understandings and treatments of disease and ‘deterioration’ in old age, and explore the personal experiences of older patients and their families and carers in England, c.1570-1730.

What I find most exciting about this project is its capacity to reframe our understandings of both old age and disease in early modern England. It will show that illness and infirmity were intimately connected to notions and experiences of ageing: disease and disability were thought to age the body, and people ‘felt’ themselves old when they became ill or infirm. Not only will the study fill a major gap in the scholarship of old age and medical history, it will also be of great modern-day relevance, with potential to spark debates on the wellbeing and care of an ever-expanding ageing population.

Amie receiving the Rees Davies Prize for best MA dissertation in the UK at the Royal Historical Society’s Prothero Lecture on 6 July 2018, with one of her PhD supervisors, Dr Hannah Newton

Sickly Smells & Putrid Potions

By Hannah Newton

Ever wondered what it would be like to live at a time before antibiotics, anesthetics, and x-rays? Last month, a group of 7-10-year-olds were invited to find out! In a special history of medicine workshop, Sickly Smells & Putrid Potions, Gerrards Cross Brownies used their five senses to investigate what happened if you fell sick in the 17th century. The workshop is designed to spark children’s curiosity about the past, while cultivating their empathy for people who are unwell today. It is part of a five-year Wellcome Trust project, Sensing Sickness,and will be repeated to other groups and schools across the country.

The Brownies from 4th Gerrards Cross

The workshop began with the story of a sick girl called Nally Thornton, who caught smallpox about 350 years ago, a dreaded disease that killed 1 in 3, and caused temporary blindness. Thankfully, Nally was one of the lucky ones, and her happy recovery is described in detail in her mother’s diary. The idea behind this opening was to build an emotional connection between the Brownies and past patients. People living centuries ago often seem alien to us, but when we read their own words, uttered in moments of heightened emotion, we realise they are every bit as human as us. The Brownies then peeped into a miniature recreation of Nally’s sickroom, complete with fourposter bed, fireplace, and tiny bottles of potion.

The first activity, picturing the sickchamber, involved analysing a painting of a 17th-century sickroom. In pairs, the children imagined they were in the room, and listed everything they would see, hear, and smell, from the soft ticking of the clock to the loud ‘ouch’ of the patient. The sharp-eyed Brownies spotted small details in the painting, such as a get-well letter, and described how the sick woman might be feeling. ‘Her hand’s on her head, so she must have a headache; she’s looking at her dog, and can’t wait till she’s better and can take him for a walk!’, said one of the youngest Brownies. Clearly the idea that the under 10s can’t empathise is a myth! When discussing smells, I gestured to a box in the corner which contained four ‘smell cubes’ from the sickroom, supplied by the aroma makers, Aroma Prime; hoping for maybe one or two brave volunteers, I was amazed when practically everyone charged towards the box, keen for a sniff! 

Next, it was time to be wee detectives! In the 17th-century it was believed that the appearance, smell, and even taste, of urine provided clues into what disease the patient had contracted. Taking on the role of the doctor, the Brownies examined four flasks of fake urine, into which had been strewn various curious items, such as gummy worms and crumbled biscuits. Using a ‘urine wheel’, volunteers matched the urine samples with the disease. ‘Wee detectives was my favourite activity’, said one Brownie. Today it might seem odd that such a yucky technique was used by doctors, but the Brownies understood that in the absence of modern diagnostic technology, looking at what came out of the body was the best way to find out what was going on inside it.

At last, it was time to discover what kinds of medicines were used in the 17th century. A quick true or false game ensued: I held up a series of pictures of possible ingredients – from earthworms to a chocolate – and the children guessed whether these really would have been used in premodern medicines. This activity showed that while some 17th-century remedies would have tasted disgusting, others were actually quite pleasant – sugar, honey, and cinnamon were common ingredients in children’s medicines, for instance. Afterwards, the Brownies had a go at designing their own marvellous medicines, and included all sorts of weird and wonderful ingredients, along with instructions and caveats – one Brownie wrote, ‘Warning! Don’t drink the whole bottle otherwise, you’ll die!

In the 1600s, patients ‘shopped around’ for their doctors, and often consulted 2 or more at once. The final activity brought these doctor visits to life. In their Sixes, the Brownies devised a short doctor drama, in which several practitioners presented their imagined medicine – created in the previous activity – to the patient, and the patient tried each one, before deciding to which doctor to employ. The Brownies got fully into character, and once again displayed their precocious ability to empathise. Those playing the patients, for instance, swooned, groaned, and grimaced at the taste of the pretend potions, and the doctor actors used all their powers of persuasion to convince their clients that their medicine would cure even the most dangerous disease.

I’d like to thank Gerrards Cross Brownies and the staff, for having me. I learned a great deal from the children, whose fresh outlook and keen imaginations have made me think about my research in a new way. As well as being fun, I hope the workshop will have opened a door to discussions among children and their families about illness and medicine, topics often out-of-bounds for the young. We’re living in an ageing population, and this generation of children is especially likely to be involved in the care of sick or frail relatives. I hope that by giving the Brownies the opportunity to talk about these issues they will be better prepared for coping with these situations should they arise in the future.

The story of Nally Thornton, mentioned above, was live-tweeted in the leadup to the publication of my new book, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England, which is available for free download from here. You can catch up with the tweets at @17thcenturymum.

Tweeting from the Grave: Sickness and Survival in the 17th Century

By Hannah Newton

My favourite thing about being a historian is reading other people’s diaries. I began to realise this at the tender age of eight, when our teacher asked us to write a series of diary entries from the perspective of someone during the Great Plague. It seems that I’ve never really grown up: over the next nine days, I will be tweeting as 17th-century mum, Alice Thornton (1626-1707), whose young daughter Nally fell dangerously sick 351 years ago.

The tweets are based on real diary entries by Alice and other 17th-century parents, which I encountered while researching for my first book, The Sick Child. Winner of the 2015 EAHMH Prize, this book shows that while illness was a source of great anguish for young patients and their families, it was also a time of tender loving care and mutual affection.

On the 7th  June my second book will be coming out, Misery to Mirth, which investigates what it was like to recover from a life-threatening illness in the 17th century. Courtesy of the Wellcome Trust, this book will be free to download.

Together, the books overturn two myths: the first is that high rates of mortality led to cold and aloof relationships between family members in the premodern period. The second myth is that before the birth of modern medicine, most illnesses left you either dead or disabled.

I will not give away what happens to Nally Thornton, but I do hope that readers come away convinced that 17th-century people were every bit as human as we are now, with deep emotions, feelings, and relationships. It’s possible that the tweets may also resonate with the experiences of patients and carers today, helping to enhance empathy for those affected by sickness both in the past and present.

Follow Alice Thornton’s ‘live’ tweet story at @17thCenturyMum from Friday 1 June.


Artistic Practice, Health Humanities and Collections: workshop 4 May 2018

Miranda Laurence, University of Reading Arts Development Officer

It’s quite difficult to describe the frisson that went around the room as everyone realised that, in front of them, to look at and indeed touch, were original copies of some of the most famous books in medical history.

Andreas Vesalius, De Humani Corporis Fabrica

Full of painstaking engravings illustrating the very minute details of the human body in all its layerings, the copies of Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica and Bidloo’s Anatomia Hvmani Corporis provided a huge source of fascination for the artists and scholars gathered for an afternoon’s workshop, jointly organised by the Health Humanities Research Network, and the Arts Development Officer as part of the University’s arts strategy activity.

We invited four artists from different disciplines, with an interest in medical humanities, to join the Director of the Health Humanities Research Network, Andrew Mangham, University Art Collections Curator, Naomi Lebens, Research Officer at the Cole Collection, Verity Burke, and Arts Development Officer, Miranda Laurence. The artists were Simon Hall, doctor, visual artist and dental trainee whose work explores art and medicine collaboration; Fiona Millward, a dancer, teacher and choreographer and Rolfing practitioner; Kelley Swain, a writer of science poetry and literature reviews, and teacher of medical humanities; and Eleanor Crook, a sculptor with a special interest in mortality, anatomy and pathology who exhibits internationally in fine art and medical and science museum contexts.

Naomi Lebens and Verity Burke began the session by introducing us to chosen items from the University Art and the Cole collection, respectively; the theme of ‘movement and stillness’ underpinned their choices. Our discussion ranged from the different visual and haptic interactions experienced when dissecting preserved body parts as opposed to conducting an operation on a live person; to how the illustrations of dissected bodies in the two anatomical text books varied from classical to grotesque, and what effect that had on the viewer; to how sketches of performing dancers related to a drawing of a woman on her death bed, and a woman mid- conversation.

Image from Govert Bidloo, Anatomia Hvmani Corporis

These eclectic conversations led us to an exploration of how each of us might unlock an unfamiliar object – whether that might be a work of art, a book, or anything else – from our different discipline perspective. Eleanor wrote: “these responses ranged from it being a kind of physical empathy, to it being a teasing out of stories, to it being a relationship to the hand and the haptic, to it being , in my case, a kind of séance.”

The different disciplines in which everyone worked might have given each person a different starting point, but as conversation flowed, the approaches described by one person drew sparks of responding imagination from another. For Fiona it was illuminating “to recognise the mutuality within our approaches of opening oneself up to the making process, but also the diversity bred of our different forms and so how the steps beyond that spiral out into different directions.”

We are hoping to be able to follow up this stimulating workshop with more opportunities for scholars and artists to exchange knowledge and processes, and indeed be collective in their un-knowing curiosity. As Kelley said, “it was a rare treat to be invited to get together to think about a collection, with artists and academics, all of whom have related points of interest.”

We feel that this is a delicious opportunity to approach the University’s amazing collections in a new and unchartered way. Naomi speaks for us all in saying that the workshop gave her “renewed belief in the power of collections as a tool for opening up dialogues between academics and creative practitioners on an equal footing; helping them to understand one another’s processes and, in turn, to incorporate new ideas and ways of thinking into their work. Fostering true interdisciplinarity.”

Monsters and Mutations

Health Humanities co-director Andrew Mangham (English Literature) reflects on the recent season of events.

Last week our ‘Monsters and Mutations’ series of events closed with a screening of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1832), a controversial film featuring real ‘freak show’ performers and offering an insight into the daily lives of circus performers in the early decades of the twentieth century. The film was introduced by our own PhD researcher Evan Hayles Gledhill who drew attention to the question of who the real ‘monsters’ of the film are; a pertinent query given how it is the able-bodied characters who behave most horribly throughout. Evan also introduced the second film in the series, Nosferatu, the 1922 German Expressionist gem, directed by F. W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok. Evan introduced the larger cultural questions surrounding the portrayal of the vampire, including the impact of eugenicist theories, the menace of antisemitism, and the perceived spread of syphilis. A week prior, the film season had been kicked off by Xavier Aldana Reyes, senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and author of Spanish Gothic (2017), Horror Film and Affect (2016), and Body Gothic (2014). Xavier introduced Der Golem, a 1915 German silent horror film, written and directed by Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen. Introducing us to the rich and fascinating context for the film, he also discussed the question of what constitutes monstrosity, how its energies are largely man-made, even within the context of the supernatural, and how it often touches upon our deepest fears and prejudices. Overall, the three films worked extremely well together, each one taking the problem of defining the monstrous and effectively holding a mirror up to the cultural ideologies and creative powers of the societies and the industries who create them.

Complementing the three film screenings, we had a public talk on ‘Hybrids and Health Humanities: Ceroplasty, Couplets, Chimeras’ by Eleanor Crook and Kelley Swaine. Eleanor is a sculptor and medical artist. She trained at the Royal Academy and has sculpted anatomical and pathological waxworks for the Gordon Museum of Pathology at Guy’s Hospital, the London Science Museum, and the Royal College of Surgeons. Kelley is a writer working in academia, science, and the arts. She is the author of numerous books exploring questions of science and culture, the history of science, and the body in representation. Together, Eleanor and Kelley explored the intersections between sculpture, the body, and the written form; they teased out some vital questions on the intersections between medical science and the humanities, revealing patterns across artistic and biological forms. On the theme of monsters and mutations, we were introduced to some of Eleanor’s beautiful works on hybrids and metamorphoses, while Kelley’s interpretations of Eleanor’s work complemented her own creative work on chimeras, and the creative links between monsters, mutations and the imagination.

For up-to-date information on other Health Humanities Events, follow @healthhums on Twitter.

Monsters film festival

In the weeks leading up to Halloween the Health Humanities research cluster is teaming up with Reading Film Theatre to organise a ‘Monsters’ film festival. Academics, students and the local community are invited to (re)discover classic monster films. Victims or fiends, the protagonists in these interwar films challenge us to question our perceptions of monstrosity but also of normality.



  • Wednesday 11th October: The Golem (1920), Minghella Studios, 7pm

An immediate success upon its release in 1920, The Golem is a seldom-screened Gothic horror gem from Germany’s Weimar era. Set in the 16th-century, it is based on the legend of a rabbi who creates the Golem – a giant creature made of clay – in order to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution. The film showing will be preceded by a talk on ‘Visualising Monstrosity in Early Gothic Cinema’ by Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, author of Horror Film and Affect and Digital Horror: Haunted Technologies, Network Panic and the Found Footage Phenomenon amongst other publications.


  • Wednesday 18th October: Nosferatu (1922), Minghella Studios, 7pm

Based on gothic classic Dracula, Nosferatu is an early horror masterpiece. The film will be introduced by Evan Hayles Gledhill, researcher of monstrosities and masculinities at the University of Reading.


  • Wednesday 25th October: Freaks (1932), Palmer G10, 7pm.

Tod Browning’s controversial classic features real actors from carnival shows and asks vital questions about cultural perceptions of ‘normality’ and ‘monstrosity’. The film will be introduced by Evan Hayles Gledhill, researcher of monstrosities and masculinities at the University of Reading.


Tickets cost £5 and no booking is required. For more information please contact Dr Marjorie Gehrhardt.

Anatomical Art in the Royal Academy

Anatomical artist Eleanor Crook reflects on the University of Reading’s Minnie Jane Hardman Collection.

‘Lady Artist’: Minnie Jane Hardman (née Shubrook)

Minnie Jane Hardman (née Shubrook) and I attended the Royal Academy Schools at points a century apart. Hardman was a student at the Royal Academy in the 1880s and I trained there myself in the 1990s. The University of Reading owns over 125 original pieces by Hardman, including examinations on perspective, anatomical and life drawings, and examples of her superb sketches and stippling – many of which were awarded prizes by the Academy. With members from the University’s Health Humanities Research Group, I looked through Hardman’s anatomical studies and sketchbook earlier this month. Looking through her artschools work from the Academy was very touching and certainly gave me a lot to think about. Her figure drawings and anatomy studies were a discipline in their day, more formative, I suspect, than enjoyable. Like practicing scales and arpeggios at a classical music conservatoire, one was there to hone skills and train the machine of rendering within the perceptual and recording apparatus that that style of representation demanded. It must have been such hard work, especially as it was pitched in competition against the men at the Academy (who would have received a deeper training and had the advantage of higher expectations). I expect that for any budding art student each drawing was to begin a welter of self-doubt and intimidation under the supervision of strict and critical masters. Not to mention the pressure of actual Rubenses, actual Reynoldses, and actual Delacroixes bearing down from the walls of the academy! In fact, I am reminded of a famous passage from Karl Marx:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis, they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.

The Academy’s schools’s august tradition certainly had that effect on me and some of my contemporaries.

These reflections make me love, really love, Hardman’s drawings and appreciate how wonderful that they are being cared for, studied, and rescued from obscurity by Naomi Lebens, the University’s art curator. Naomi showed us a little book of press cuttings, left by Hardman. I think, on some level, that the artist left her press cuttings book for researchers, thinking they would find it useful. The most obscure of us harbour a fantasy that one day our art school drawings will be dusted off and looked through by a sympathetic eye – that one day we might make something that would give our sketches a retrospective importance. Otherwise, we’d throw them away.

Eleanor Crook trained in sculpture at Central St Martins and the Royal Academy and makes figures and effigies in wax, carved wood, and lifelike media. She has also made a special study of anatomy and has sculpted anatomical and pathological waxworks for the Gordon Museum of Pathology at Guy’s Hospital, London’s Science Museum, and the Royal College of Surgeons of England. She exhibits internationally in both fine art and science museum contexts.

New Chapter: “She Sleeps Well & Eats an Egg”: Convalescent Care in Early Modern England

By Hannah Newton (History)

Today in western healthcare, a special branch of medicine is dedicated to the care of patients recovering from critical illnesses – rehabilitation or convalescent medicine. Involving a host of professionals, including intensive care specialists, nutritionists, clinical psychologists, and occupational therapists, rehabilitation medicine seeks to help patients regain their former physical and emotional health after a life-threatening or debilitating disease. We might be tempted to assume that convalescent medicine is a modern invention, which coincided with advances in medicine; back in the ‘olden days’, when remedies were ineffective or even dangerous, surely the sick would have died rather than recovered. In a new open access chapter, ‘She Sleeps Well and Eats an Egg’, I show that this was not the case. Convalescents were ubiquitous in early modern England. Typically described as ‘pale as marble’ and ‘lean as skeletons’, these patients were deemed worthy of their own distinctive type of medicine, which was designed to restore strength and flesh to the body, and prevent relapse into disease. To achieve these aims, doctors and family members monitored and managed what were known as the ‘six non-naturals’, the patient’s excretions, sleep, food, emotions, air, and exercise. A gentle laxative, followed by nutritious and easily digestible food, merry company, and plenty of sleep, expanded the body’s ‘spirits’ and ‘radical moisture’, thereby fattening and enlivening the whole person. I argue that these various interventions constituted a concept of convalescent care, or to use the contemporary term, ‘analeptics’.

This open access chapter is part of a collection on Conserving Health in Early Modern Culture (Manchester University Press, July 2017), edited by Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey. Here is the download link: