Foundling Museum celebrates Dr Richard Mead - Georgian doctor to the stars

By Stephanie Chapman | 16 October 2014

Stephanie Chapman of the Foundling Museum on Dr Richard Mead, one of the most eminent physicians, patrons, collectors and philanthropists of the Georgian era

a photo of a man in a long coat and Georgian wig
Allan Ramsay, Dr Richard Mead, 1747 © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum
Dr Richard Mead’s list of patients reads a bit like a Who’s Who of eighteenth century London: Alexander Pope, Sir Robert Walpole, Isaac Newton and Samuel Johnson were among those who turned to him for medical advice.

Whilst the efficacy of some of Mead’s prescriptions can today be called into question (a recipe to help those suffering with asthma has a toxic plant as its first ingredient), in a town full of quackery and home cures, he provided a respectable and trusted alternative.

Educated in Utrecht and Leiden, Mead returned to England to set up practice in his home town of Stepney before moving to the City of London when elected Physician to St Thomas’s Hospital in 1703.

His first publication on the subject of poisons was both popular and pioneering, helping to cement his growing reputation.  Mead was not just renowned as a physician: he was a collector of repute, a scholar and a polymath.

He was also a generous and convivial host who ‘kept every day a public table for men of learning and ingenuity, at which he presided himself, and addressed the naturalist, the mathematician, the antiquarian, the painter, and the classic, each in his own language.’ 

Perhaps this ability to consort with a wide variety of professions and people gave him the upper hand in his medical practice. He could discuss politics with Walpole, religion with the Bishop of Salisbury, philanthropy with Thomas Guy and astronomy with Edmund Halley, all of whom were patients. 

a photo of a walking stick with a golden engraved handle
Golden-headed Cane© The Royal College of Physicians, London
Having proven his worth as a young man to leading physician, Sir John Radcliffe, he inherited not just the elder physician’s famed gold-headed cane, but also his home and many of his patients.

One of those patients was Queen Anne, who Mead had attended on her death bed whilst Radcliffe was out of town. Whilst this may not have seemed like the most auspicious start for an ambitious young doctor, by 1717 he had successfully treated the Princess of Wales, he later attended George I and he rose to become Physician in Ordinary to George II.

The Princess of Wales (later Queen Caroline) held Mead in particularly high esteem.  She had urged him and other doctors to carry out a trial smallpox inoculation which led to her inoculating her own children in the hope to persuade others of the benefit of this practice. 

Mead’s relationship with Caroline flourished and she even presented Mead with a portrait of herself and her children in gratitude for his medical care.

It was not only the British who benefitted from Mead’s prescriptive powers. In 1719 the Almanach royale reported that the talented Rococo painter, Antoine Watteau was in London.

Watteau, then just 35 years old and suffering from tuberculosis, had visited specifically to seek the medical advice of Mead. Whilst in England he painted two works, possibly commissioned by Mead or given to him in gratitude: The Italian Comedians (today in the National Gallery of Art, Washington) and another, now lost.

a watercolour of a Georgian building and street
J. P. Emslie, 49 Great Ormond Street, showing the location of Dr Mead’s house, 1882© Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London
Mead ran a busy and lucrative private practice from his home in Great Ormond Street, earning an estimated £6000 per year at the height of his career. He charged considerable fees to those who could afford it, yet he was generous with his time, his expertise and his support to those that couldn’t.

The Foundling Hospital, London’s first children’s charity - which continues today as the children’s charity Coram - located just around the corner from Mead’s home in today’s Bloomsbury, was a regular beneficiary of Mead’s generosity.

His portrait is on permanent display in the Foundling Museum to this day, as part of treasured collection of artworks and objects linked to the history of the Hospital and the remarkable people dedicated to improving the lives of children. 

Stephanie Chapman is the curator of the exhibition The Generous Georgian: Dr Richard Mead (until 4 January 2015) at the Foundling Museum, London.

The Generous Georgian: Dr Richard Mead is at the Foundling Museum until January 4 2015

Read the blog, which accompanies the exhibition and offers the opportunity to delve further into Mead's life and achievements from his travels in Italy to the eccentricities of eighteenth-century medicine

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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