‘Hypochondriacal People’: Lives Haunted by the Pox

These dreadful Apprehensions have frequently possesst the Imaginations of some People that had taken the way to get the Pox, so, as to be soon perswaded they have it, whether it be so or no.
John Marten, A Treatise of all the Degrees and Symptoms of the Venereal  Disease in Both Sexes (London, 1708), p.43.

In the Treatise of all the Degrees and Symptoms of the Venereal Disease by the London-based surgeon John Marten there is an intriguing and disturbing discussion of ‘hypochondriacal’ patients. These ‘hypochondriacal’ men and women were, firstly, those who although they were cured of the pox according to their doctors, believed that they were still afflicted with the disease. Secondly, this group included those who had never had the pox, but had read and heard about it, and had usually participated in behaviours (such as sexual intercouse with a prostitute) that were believed to pose a high risk of contracting the disease, that had become (wrongly) convinced that they were labouring under the disease’s symptoms.

Syphilis of the Skull, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery collections, catalogue number GLAHM 122592.

The few pages on pox-related hypochondria in Marten’s book provide a sharp insight into the terror that this disease provoked in eighteenth-century British society. The picture of the skull from The Hunterian’s collection (above) very clearly demonstrates the impact the pox could have on the body in its most severe form. Perhaps some of the ‘hypochondriacal’ had witnessed others with this form of advanced pox, where the bones of the living victim begin to rot away. They may have seen such cases whilst they themselves were undergoing treatment, or possibly they had seen them on the streets or in the illustrations in the numerous books on the subject. The disease and its treatment were synonymous with suffering and loss of respectability (because of its association with immoral sexual behaviours). In other words, it could bring both literal (physical) and social death. For some, it appears that the threat of the disease or a relapse, were sufficient to cause severe anxiety which consumed their lives.

Marten’s book shows the pity he felt for these fear-ridden hypochondriacs, but it also reveals a sense of annoyance. His sympathy was driven by his intimate knowledge of the disease, having treated seemingly innumerable patients for the pox, some of whom died from the disease. He also recognised that the cures were often ‘desperate’, extremely painful and occasionally, when badly administered, fatal. To be afflicted with the pox was terrifying, and to undergo treatment was no less so.

Modern readers might compare these eighteenth-century pox patients with twenty-first century cancer patients, who suffer with their disease and often face courses of treatment which take a huge toll on the body and mind. Today, many of us will know someone who has undergone treatment for cancer, and the fear that lingers with many former patients and their families that the disease may one day return.

John Marten (pictured on the left-hand page), A Treatise of all the Degrees and Symptoms of the Venereal Disease (London, 1708), University of Glasgow Library, Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.6.11., with permission of University of Glasgow Special Collections.

Sympathy, however, is not the only emotion that we encounter in Marten’s text. There is also a strong sense of frustration with the unwillingness or inability of the ‘hypochondriacal’ poxed to take his word, or that of other reputable medical practitioners, that their illness is cured or non-existent. That said, Marten’s exasperation seems to be primarily driven by the frustration of seeing patients leading themselves into ruination. Faced with a rejection of his professional experience and medical logic, Marten was rendered powerless, and could find no way to sooth the worries of his anxious patients.

Phobia of the pox led men and women to seek out the opinions of multiple medical practitioners, until they could find one that diagnosed them with the pox. But, according to Marten, ‘no fair skilful Practiser, will Administer any further than the Distemper truly requires, it being mercenary to make a Prey of those unfortunate Discontents’. Thus, their fear made them vulnerable to unscrupulous doctors, or worse still, quacks, men who pretended to have medical knowledge and/or qualifications and sold useless prescriptions or aped the cures of professionals as a money-making scam. Throughout the eighteenth-century quack remedies for all manner of illnesses often proved at best useless and, at worst, seriously harmful or fatal. Moreover, even where a proper cure for the pox (usually mercury) was administered, Marten warned that it damaged the patient’s health because it was unnecessary.

Moreover, once the hypochondriacs found a practitioner who agreed they were suffering with the pox their fear was also likely to intensify. Marten described how they became plagued with doubts surrounding the capability of the doctor or surgeon (quack or not) who had diagnosed and begun to treat them. The concern that ‘they were not in Hands skilful enough’ led them to seek out more medical men to treat them, and they bounced from one to the other with growing fear that they might never be cured. This erratic and self-destructive path, driven by intense fear, did not end Marten stated, ‘’til they had ruin’d both their Bodies and their Purses’ through the costly and unnecessary treatments. Not only was the pox potentially fatal, according to Marten the sheer fear of the disease could also ruin lives.

Whilst Marten mostly despairs at the illogical nature of the ‘hypochondriacal’ patients, their persistent intense fear and willingness to undergo huge financial and physical stresses to be rid of the disease they believed they had demonstrates just how great the fear surrounding the pox was in eighteenth-century Britain.

3 thoughts on “‘Hypochondriacal People’: Lives Haunted by the Pox

  1. Pingback: Medical Fascinations, Human Lives: Hunter’s Syphilis Specimens | Pox and prejudice?

  2. Pingback: A fashionable career | Pox and prejudice?

  3. Pingback: ‘Direful Attendants’: The Great Pox and Shame | Pox and prejudice?

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