11th September 1817. Kill or Cure!

In the new millennium the training of doctors came into scrutiny and it was posited that too much time was spent on science courses which were of little relevance to practical medicine: too many facts, not enough thinking.

The medical profession traditionally resisted new ideas preferring to keep the ancient mystique of their craft between themselves and their professional bodies, rooted as it was in ancient priest craft.


blood letting a patient. Often blood-sucking leeches were used.

When surgery separated from physic is a moot point though the Shorter Oxford Dictionary cites (in Middle English), some notion: ‘O Lord, whi is it so greet difference betwixe a cirugian and a physician’. But there was and the physician was always regarded as superior to the craftsmen surgeons.

Up until the 19thc medicine was a haphazard affair and the training reflected this. The title of Professor of Physic was largely a sinecure at Cambridge University.

Little development had been seen since Henry VIII had endowed the first Professor of Physic in 1540 to a Dr John Blyth, thus attempting to wrest medicine from the clutches of the priests, where it had long reposed.

In 1797 Cambridge, only three terms attendance at lectures were deemed necessary for the Bachelor of Medicine (MB), and in the early 19thc only one or two students were registered yearly, most preferring the more practical courses of the London hospitals.(1)

The need to revitalize medical teaching in the universities was understood by John Haviland (1785-1851), who Today in 1817 received Letters Patent appointing him to the Chair of the Science of Physic, at Cambridge, which he held until death.(2)

Medicine previously taught at Cambridge was subservient to maths, classics and philosophy. Residence there was based on developing social contacts and the art of being a Gentleman, medical science came a second best.

In 1819 Haviland instituted written exams in English, as opposed to the viva, for the Bachelor of Medicine (MB), in anatomy, botany, chemistry and pharmacy.

The number of medical students was to increase from a paltry average of 3/4 per annum to 9/10 by 1820. Haviland insisted that a knowledge of surgery was necessary and the requirement to work in hospitals.

The powerful university educated physicians who had treated the London Society rich, lost their Royal patronage with the decline of monarchical power.

Also the rising wealthy middle class in the 19th century, had little time for ancient, arcane, medical lore; they required treatment by practical men.

However change in the universities came slowly, for in 1825 The London Magazine could still say that: ‘the medical students learned nothing that enabled him to practise his art’.

Snobbery was still in evidence, as in 1829 the Gentleman’s Magazine considered that: ‘English Universities make a man a Gentleman, and do so by him residing among Gentlemen’.

Also the Church still held sway for Haviland was forced to resign his fellowship in 1819 on his marriage, and not until Oxford and Cambridge Act 1877, was the requirement of celibacy abandoned.

(1) Privilege prevailed and  sons of Doctors of Medicine (MDs), of English Universities were allowed to kill game, as they ranked next to Knights and so above Esquires. The College system was also deemed [laughingly] to be the linchpin of a moral education.

(2a) The term  ‘Professor’ wasn’t a personal title at that time.

(2b) Haviland was the 15th Professor of Physic at Cambridge.

Ref: London Magazine 1825, 13:437-66.

Ref: Camb Med School-Biograph History; Humphrey Davy Rolleston.

Ref: 19thc Oxford Vol I edit Michael George Brock et al.

Ref: medscholastic.com/about history.

Ref: Gentleman’s Magazine, 1829. ii 334.

Ref: Mark Weatherall, 2000 Education. Hist of Camb texts studies 3 1800-1940.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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