Poetry in medicine

Physician and poet Sir Samuel Garth (1660/61–1719) from Bolam, co. Durham was educated at Ingleton, Peterhouse and Leiden. Garth practised all his life in Covent Garden, London and became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians on 26 June 1693.

Garth was known for his wit and love of poetry. He was also an ardent Whig. In 1697 he delivered the Royal College of Physician’s annual Harveian oration in which he proposed a scheme for providing a dispensary for the sick poor. However, apothecaries were obstinately against setting up the dispensary, fearing that it would give the College power to relegate them professionally. London apothecaries had been pushing for professional autonomy, including the freedom to also give medical guidance. College opponents of the dispensary included the eminent physicians John Radcliffe and Thomas Sydenham.

In 1699 Garth published a mock-heroic poem The Dispensary, in six cantos. In this poem he pitted the apothecaries and their allies against the physicians. It was popular immediately and three editions were produced within a year. More editions followed over the next fifty years and Garth omitted and changed lines in the various editions published. He wrote both humorous verses and serious poems throughout his life.

Garth was knighted on 10 October 1714, following George I's accession to the throne, and was appointed physician-in-ordinary to the king and physician-general to the army.

Samuel Garth Dispensary'The dispensary: : a poem, in six canto's' by Sir Samuel Garth. Frontispiece, 'Theatrum Cutlerianum', is the anatomical lecture theatre at Royal College of Physicians paid for by Sir John Cutler (1607/8-1693). Engraved by Michael van der Gucht (1660-1725)

John Armstrong (1708/9–1779), also a physician and poet, was born at Castleton, Roxburghshire, studied medicine in Edinburgh and was practising in London by 1735, albeit unlicensed. He published poetry and papers in both serious and satirical styles and had a reputation for hard drinking and bad language with a tendency towards sardonicism and cantankerousness.

In 1736 he anonymously published Oeconomy of Love, a lewd sex guide in blank verse. In 1744, his more moderate and best known poem The Art of Preserving Health was published. Written in georgic style in four books its emphasis is on withdrawing from city life and embracing the fresh air of the countryside. Both of these works were regularly reprinted throughout the eighteenth century.

In danger of being fined or sued if a patient died, the Royal College of Physicians summoned Armstrong in April 1765 for practising without a licence. His medical career ended. He enjoyed his role as a literary luminary among younger associates such as the banker Thomas Coutts who commissioned Joshua Reynolds to paint Armstrong's portrait in 1767.

John Armstrong

Portrait of John Armstrong engraved by Edward Fisher (1722?-1782?) after a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)

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