A Duel over Smallpox

On 10 June 1719 Dr Richard Mead and Dr John Woodward allegedly came to blows outside Gresham College in central London. This was the, perhaps rather surprising, culmination of a pamphlet war over Mead’s advocacy of the use of purgatives in the treatment of smallpox.

I met with Dr Mead to discuss this extraordinary incident and the events leading up to it.

First of all, what exactly was your suggested treatment for smallpox?

Well, having been several Years one of the Physicians to St. Thomas’s Hospital, in the year of our Lord 1708 I observed that some of my Patients recovered from a very malignant sort of Small Pox, even beyond Expectation, by a Looseness seizing them on the ninth or tenth Day of the Disease.

Hence, I took the Hint to try what Good might be done by opening the Body with a gentle Purge on the Decline of the Distemper. The Success was in a great Measure answerable to my Wishes: for by this Method I recovered many who were in the most imminent Danger.

John Friend (1675–1728), Oil on canvas, studio of Michael Dahl, c. 1725, © Royal College of Physicians

John Freind (1675–1728), Oil on canvas, studio of Michael Dahl, c. 1725, © Royal College of Physicians

Did you then publicise these findings?

I communicated this Method of Practice to various of my Peers, including Dr John Freind. He and several Physicians likewise, both in Town and Country, were in Agreement about its salutary Effects, and he included a Letter I had written about it in his 1717 Commentary on Fevers, Commentarium novem de febribus.

How was your letter received?

There never are wanting Men of so invidious a turn of Mind that their principal Pleasure consists in blackening the Reputation and decrying the Productions of others; as if what they strip their Neighbours of was to be added to their own Characters. Thus, Dr Freind’s Book had no sooner appeared in Public, but some of this Ilk flew to arms, as if to save the Common-wealth, attacking my Mode of Treatment.

Was there a ring-leader for this disagreeable faction?

ohn Woodward, by and published by; after William Humphrey; Unknown artist, mezzotint, published 1774, © National Portrait Gallery, London

John Woodward, by and published by; after William Humphrey; Unknown artist, mezzotint, published 1774, © National Portrait Gallery, London

In front of this Band stood forth Dr John Woodward, physic Professor at Gresham College, a Man equally ill-bred, vain, and ill-natured, who, after being for some time Apprentice to a Linen-Draper, took it into his Head to make a Collection of Shells and Fossils, in order to pass upon the World for a Philosopher. Thence having got Admission into a Physician’s Family, at length by dint of Interest obtained a Doctor’s Degree.

This man publish’d a Book entitled, The State of Physic and Diseases, wherein he took great Liberties with Dr Freind, and those in the same Sentiment with him, but pointed his Arrows most particularly at me. These were neither Arguments nor Experiments, of which he had none, but bare-faced Calumny and Raillery, which he poured forth in Abundance.

I understand that this war of words eventually led to what has been called a duel. I have here Woodward’s own account of the fight in a statement he sent to the Weekly Journal for 20 January 1719:

“I had by this time drove Mead from the street quite through the gateway, almost to the middle of the College yard; when making another pass, my right foot was stopped by some accident, so that I fell down on my breast.  In an instant I felt Dr Mead’s whole weight upon me…. after that [he] gave me very abusive language, and bid me ask for my life.”

Is this a fair description of what happened?

The Arrogance and Vanity of the Man is beyond Belief. I am aware of this libellous Account and can utterly refute it. I was passing by Gresham College in my Carriage and paused momentarily in order to water my Horses. I stepped out of the Carriage for a Breath of fresh Air and was suddenly confronted by Dr Woodward who drew his Sword and forced me to respond to his Assault. Naturally I swiftly gained the upper Hand and demanded an Apology. His preposterous Account is merely an Attempt to safeguard his Reputation, what there is of it.

How do you look back on this altercation?

‘Tis much against my will that I revive the Remembrance of that Libel, which already is well-nigh sunk into Oblivion. However, I hope I have demonstrated how little Foundation Dr Woodward had for his personal Reflections and Brawling.


The alleged duel is commemorated in a plate of a book by John Ward (c.1679 – 1758), The lives of the professors of Gresham College (1740), in which two small figures battle it out in the bottom right-hand corner of a depiction of the College building. The book, and many other artefacts and works relating to Mead’s battle against smallpox, can be seen in The Generous Georgian: Dr Richard Mead, at the Foundling Museum until 4 January 2015.


The next post will look into smallpox at the Foundling Hospital and how the Governors were pioneers in their introduction of the practice of inoculation.


This ‘interview’ draws on Mead’s writings to answer a series of questions posed in an imaginary conversation.


2 thoughts on “A Duel over Smallpox

  1. Pingback: Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: History A'la Carte 2-5-15 - Random Bits of Fascination

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s