An Interview with a Gold-Headed Cane

Gold-headed Cane © The Royal College of Physicians

Dr Mead’s gold-headed cane, wood, gilt © The Royal College of Physicians

Nowadays people might associate doctors with their stethoscopes, but from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries people would have thought of the physician’s cane.

The use of these canes dates back to classical times, and their purpose was similar to the sinister-looking beaks of the masks worn by plague doctors. It was commonly thought that contagion was spread by putrid air, so the beaks of masks and the hollow knobs that topped the canes were filled with aromatics such as herbs, lavender or myrrh to protect the physicians from bad air.

Hogarth's The Company of Undertakers or a Consultation of Physicians,  1736 © Wellcome Library, London

Hogarth’s The Company of Undertakers or a Consultation of Physicians, 1736, showing the physicians smelling the aromatics in their canes <br> © Wellcome Library, London

The canes of wealthy physicians became extremely ornate, with hollow perforated heads made from ivory or precious metal.

This particular cane had six owners, whose arms are engraved on its golden head. Its prestigious owners meant that the phrase a ‘gold-headed cane physician’ was used to indicate high standing within the profession.

William Macmichael (1783-1839), a physician and medical biographer, wrote a book about the six owners, entirely narrated by the cane itself. It gives an account of the lives of each of the owners in turn, as experienced by their constant companion the cane.

I visited the cane at its home in the collection of the Royal College of Physicians of England, and asked it a few questions about the upcoming exhibition dedicated to its former owner.

Me: Were you excited to hear that the Foundling Museum was hosting an exhibition about Dr Mead?

The Cane: Every Fibre thrilled within me at the Consciousness of the heartfelt Delight with which my kind and generous Master would have grasped me, could he have forseen how he would be honoured in this way.

How do you feel about being part of the exhibition yourself?

Title page from The gold-headed cane by William MacMichael © Wellcome Library, London

Title page from The gold-headed cane by William MacMichael
© Wellcome Library, London

When I was deposited in the Library at the Royal College of Physicians, with the Observation that I was no longer to be carried about, but to be kept amongst the Relics of that learned Body, it was impossible to avoid secretly lamenting the Obscurity which was henceforth to be my Lot. Formerly the Entrée of Palaces had been open to me – I had been freely admitted into the Houses of the great and the rich – but now I thought I was doomed to Darkness, to be surrounded by the musty Manuscripts of defunct Doctors.

I have grown accustomed to my current Abode, but it will be most exciting to venture out to Brunswick Square and see the many Visitors who will surely flock to learn more about my second Master.

If you had to rank your owners by preference, what order would you put them in?

I have passed through many gentle and erudite Hands, and it would be a nigh impossible Task to rank them in such an Order. However, Sir John Radcliffe, as my first Master, will always occupy a special Place in my Heart, or at least he would if I had one.

John Radcliffe, M.D (1652-1714) by Godfrey Kneller © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2014 - previously in Mead's own collection

John Radcliffe, M.D (1652-1714) by Godfrey Kneller © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2014
– previously in Mead’s own collection

What is your earliest memory?

Of my early State and separate Condition I have no recollection whatsoever. It may reasonably enough be supposed that it was not till after the Acquisition of my Head that I became conscious of Existence, and capable of Observation. I believe that my first Memory is of being vigorously polished in preparation for being delivered to Sir Radcliffe, of whose Existence I was not yet aware, being so recently cognisant of my own.

Do you have any exciting stories from your time with Dr Mead?

I was closely connected with Medicine for a Century and a Half, and can consequently, without Vanity, look upon myself as the Depositary of many important Secrets. I have witnessed many striking Scenes, chief among them being that at Newgate Prison during Dr Mead’s Investigation of the new Method of Smallpox Inoculation.

Tom Rakewell in a cell in the Fleet Prison. Engraving by T. Cook after W. Hogarth, 1797 © Wellcome Library, London

Tom Rakewell in a cell in the Fleet Prison. Engraving by T. Cook after W. Hogarth, 1797 © Wellcome Library, London

The Prison itself was a dreadful Contrast to the grand and stately Buildings I was accustomed to. The hellish Noise – a Clamour of roaring and swearing – coupled with the Sight of the terrible and tragic Crowd inside the prison walls made me most afraid. However, the firm Grip of my Master was a great Comfort to me.

Seven Felons underwent the Procedure, with varying degrees of Dignity. The seventh was a young Girl of eighteen years of age, who was greatly alarmed by my master’s Experiment with the Chinese Method of Inoculation. He introduced into her Nostrils a Tent, wetted with Matter taken out of ripe Smallpox Pustules, which was not at all to her Liking. Nevertheless, the Trial was a Success, and she fell ill and subsequently recovered just as my Master had intended.

How will you pass the time before the start of the exhibition?

My Silence and Solitude in my appropriately Grand Cabinet do allow for calm Reflection and Observation, of which I have had much in the past One Hundred and Eighty-nine Years. I believe I must be Condition Reported before leaving my Home at the Royal College of Physicians, and then I will be ready for my Journey!

 

Many thanks to the cane for this interview. The exhibition begins today, so come and visit when you can – the cane will be very happy to see you.

My next post will be an interview with Dr Richard Barnett, a writer, teacher and broadcaster on the cultural history of science and medicine, discussing London and medicine in Mead’s lifetime.

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