Introducing Dr Mead

Portrait of Dr Mead by Allan Ramsay

Allan Ramsay, Dr Richard Mead, 1747 © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

I have the very great honour of introducing Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754), eminent physician, philanthropist and collector of the eighteenth century.

His extraordinary list of patients included Queen Anne, George II, Sir Isaac Newton and Antoine Watteau, but he also found the time to dedicate his time and expertise to the Foundling Hospital, which benefited from his patronage and medical advice.

Dr Mead amassed a magnificent library and collection of art and artefacts over his lifetime, displayed in a stunning gallery designed by the architect James Gibbs, now demolished to make way for Great Ormond Street Hospital.

I have been in correspondence with Dr Mead, and he has kindly agreed to this series of posts about his life and interests, even allowing me to include a few interviews with the doctor himself…

Me: How did you feel when you found out that the Foundling Museum was planning an exhibition about you?

Naturally I am honoured, but I have to say that I consider it a little overdue. My Friend Sir Hans Sloane has had a far more prominent posthumous Reputation, despite our similar Careers and Collections. It is certainly time to redress the Balance.

Is it true that you fought a duel to defend your views on the treatment of smallpox?

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

Unknown artist, John Woodward, mezzotint, 1774 © National Portrait Gallery, London

There are various differing Accounts of that Evening, and I would like to set this in a clear Light. Dr John Woodward is, or rather was, an ill-bred, vain, and ill-natured Man who presumed to challenge my Views on the Use of Purgatives in the Treatment of Smallpox. His Pamphlet Campaign aiming to discredit me caused me considerable Irritation and when I challenged him to demand an Apology it led to an Altercation. I was, of course, the Victor, but he subsequently published a ridiculous and libellous Account of the Incident.

Why did you choose Non sibi, sed toti as your motto?

I have always been of the Opinion that one should use one’s Talents for the greater Good. Far too many people are intirely too concerned with Themselves. ‘Not for oneself, but for all’ is a Motto that many more should choose to follow.

Why did you decide to become involved with the Foundling Hospital?

One used to walk thro’ the Streets of London and Westminster, and behold the utmost Affluence and Splendor on the one hand; and the extremest Wretchedness on the other. Captain Coram’s Programme for the Foundling Hospital was a most worthy Endeavour and I therefore omitted no Opportunity to contribute what I could.

The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London. Coloured engraving after L. P. Boitard, 1753 © Wellcome Images

‘The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London’, Coloured engraving after L. P. Boitard, 1753 © Wellcome Images

Can you tell us any scandalous stories about any of your more illustrious patients?

It is of the utmost Importance for a Physician to keep the Confidences of his Patients, but seeing as all of my Patients have been dead for over two hundred Years, I feel that I can disclose a few Details. For example, Sir Isaac Newton, a good Friend as well as a Patient, admitted to me on his Death Bed that he remained a Virgin.[1]

Over your lifetime you had your portrait painted many times. Could you say which one is your favourite?

I never liked Mr Arthur Pond’s Depiction and I am not overjoyed to see that it has been included in the Exhibition. However, the Portrait by my good Friend Allan Ramsay now on display at the Foundling Museum has always been a favourite.

I’ve had rather a bad cough for a few weeks now, what would you recommend?

Catching cold is often the Result of Obstructed Perspiration. I would advise Rest, Fluids, the lightest of Foods, an Infusion of Balm and Citrus and be sure to avoid extremes in Temperature. I must lastly remark that many attempt to cure a cold by getting drunk. But this, to say no worse of it, is a very hazardous and fool-hardy Experiment.


Many thanks to Dr Mead for permitting me to interview him. This is the first of a series of posts exploring the life of Dr Mead. My next post will look in more depth at his views on smallpox, or ‘the speckled monster’, and his involvement in the new practice of inoculation.

The Foundling Museum’s exhibition The Generous Georgian: Dr Richard Mead  opens on 26 September 2014 and runs until 4 January 2015.

[1] In Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophique,  ‘Letter XIV. On Descartes and Sir Isaac Newton’, Voltaire writes that Newton ‘never had any commerce with women – a circumstance which was assured me by the physician and surgeon who attended him in his final moments’, the physician being Mead.

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