Thursday, February 4, 2010

A death

From “The Dregs of Life”, Royal Charles, Antonia Fraser

" The responsibility for making the first decision about treatment fell upon Bruce, the senior gentleman present. By this time one of the doctors, Sir Edmund King, had arrived in the bed-chamber and had witnessed the incident. Bleeding was the obvious remedy of the time. And bleed the King this doctor now proceeded to do in style, while a panic-stricken message was sent off to the Duke of York and the rest of the Privy Council were summoned as hastily as possible. By the time a Privy Council of sorts had gathered together in the outer room at midday, Charles had had sixteen ounces of blood removed via a vein in his arm, a task for which the doctor was afterwards paid L1,000.

Soon other doctors came flocking in as the news of the King’s collapse reached them. A series of remedies were frantically applied. The King’s head was shorn. Cantharides (Spanish fly or blister beetle) was used as a blistering agent. A further eight ounces of blood was removed. And as a result of these steps-or despite them-the King did actually recover. Two hours later his speech had come back.


In the general relief, the doctors at least did not let up on the application of their remedies. It was actually in the presence of his physicians - twelve of them by this time - that next morning, Tuesday, 3 February, the King was seized with another ‘fit’ or convulsion. Immediately and with renewed frenzy the remedies were stepped up and new ones were imported.

Lord Macaulay described Charles II on his death-bed as being tortured like an Indian at the stake. The comparison is apt, except that one doubts whether any tormentor of Indians ever had quite such a battery of instruments at his command as the seventeenth-century royal doctors. It has been estimated that a total of fifty-eight drugs were administered over five days, many of whose names are as exotic to us as their effects were painful to the King.

There was hellebore root (a sneezing powder to clear his nose) and plasters of combined spurge and Burgundy pitch (these were applied to his feet), as well as plasters of cantharides on his head. The ingredients of the enemas which were applied frequently were rock salt and syrup of buckthorn. As an emetic, an orange injfusion of metals, made in white wine, was employed. White vitriol was dissolved in paeony water; other remedies varied from the homely, such as the distillation of cowslip flowers to the more striking spirit of sal ammoniac. An anti-spasmodic julep of black cherry water, oriental bezoar stone from the stomach of an East goat and spirits of human skull were amongst other cures named.

The poor King’s body was purged and bled and cauterized and clystered and blistered. Red hot irons were put to his shaven skull and his naked feet. His urine became scalding through the lavish use of cantharides. Cupping-glasses and all the many weird resources of medicine at the time were applied. They all had one thing in common: they were extremely painful to the patient.

These prodigious efforts were much admired at the time. Colonel Thomas Fairfax, an Irish officer visiting London, hastened to write to Dublin of the employment of 'all the means that the art of man thought proper for the King’s distemper’. The doctor’s report afterwards spoke of 'every kind of treatment attempted by Physicians of the greatest loyalty and skill’. The doctors did not exaggerate the universality of their treatments; their loyalty was doubtless incomparable; but they did somewhat gloss over their own incompetence. The King’s mouth and tongue became 'much inflamed’ with scalding medicines and where his teeth had been forced apart during convulsions. Not all the doctors were as skilled at blooding as Edmund King. James Pearse, Charles’ Surgeon in Ordinary, and Surgeon General to the Navy and Land forces, could not find the jugular vein successfully, a desperate experience for the patient. Another doctor, Thomas Hobbs, who lived in nearby Fleet Street and Surgeon to the Household and the King’s troops of the Horse Guards, had to finish the job: for this efficiency he was later rewarded by inclusion in Dryden’s poem on the King’s death, 'Threnodia Augustalis’.

The need to keep up the patient’s strength through all this was however fully recognized: from time to time the King was given draughts of emulsion, light broth and liquid posset. At the same time the purges and emetics continued remorselessly to drain his resistance from him. Once again the comparison with torture arises, as when the tormentors are determined that their victim shall not finally elude them through death, and therefore fortify him."


As terrifying and disgusting as this account is, as soon as one's revulsion abates one may be able to distinguish parallels between the medical expertise of the seventeenth century and the economists of the present. Just as blood letting was the automatic treatment for almost any ailment then, contemporary economists prescribe government spending for almost all economic ills. If human freedom survives in some stunted form into the future, our descendants may well be as appalled by the attempts to alleviate economic failures as we are by the measures used to treat hapless King Charles II.

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