Sunday, November 2, 2014

Dr. Richard Mead - Generous Georgian

I recently got invited to the opening of an exhibition at the Foundling museum.  Your correspondent was doubly excited a) because she has never been taken seriously as a blogger before and b) because it was about a really interesting character named Dr. Richard Mead. 

Also your correspondent really enjoys a good medical history exhibit. 

Unfortunately she ran up against the smallish problem whereby she lives in Australia with a toddler and an obstetric practice and the exhibition is in London. 

The people at the Foundling museum have been kind enough to bring the exhibition to me, and today I am going to bring a little of it to you.  If you are in London, though, please go, tell me how awesome it is and turn me green with jealousy!

 (Dr Richard Mead - public domain image sourced from Wikipedia)

Richard Mead was born in 1673 in London, the 11th child of Matthew Mead an independent minister.  He studied medicine abroad in Leiden and Padua before returning to London to set up a successful practice in 1696, quickly becoming a very fashionable doctor.  Interestingly enough his home is now the site of the Great Ormond Street hospital.  

He produced his first well recognised paper 'Mechanical Account of Poisons' in 1702 and was subsequently admitted to the Royal Society of Physicians in 1703.  He also become a physician at St Thomas's hospital that same year.   Mead soon rose to become the head of his profession and was soon physician to royalty - tending to Queen Anne on her deathbed and the newly crowned King George II.  Mead was also the doctor for Sir Isaac Newton. 

In 1720 he published his most famous work 'A Short Discourse concerning Pestilential Contagion, and the Method to be used to prevent it' which was instrumental in the understanding of transmissable diseases.  This work was commissioned by the government to produce recommendations in the case
outbreak of the bubonic plague in Marseilles.  Although this would actually turn out to be the last major outbreak of plague in Europe - at the time the government was concerned about the potential for it to spread.  Mead's work here essentially foreshadows Britain's public health system with many sensible recommedations, including quarantine that are still in use today in the case of infectious disease.

 (Dr. Mead's home at Great Ormond St.  - courtesy Foundling Museum)

With his new royal connections, Mead was instrumental in establishing the Foundling Hospital (site of the present day Foundling museum), a home for orphaned children, both as a governer on the board of the charity and as its medical advisor.  Through his influence the building was equipped with a sick room, a pharmacy and a larger courtyard than planned to promote the children exercising.

Here he chose to advance his strong belief in the importance of inoculation, outlined in his 1748 work A discourse on the small pox and measles.  Smallpox was still a life threatening and ever present threat particularly for the young, causing a rash, headache, fever, muscle pain and death in 30-50% of cases.  Mead strongly advocated for a form of inoculation called variolation, where a small scratch would be made on an individuals skin and pus from a recently infected individual introduced.  Although there was a risk of a life threatening infection, usually a more mild infection would result - triggering life long immunity.  A patient would generally have a mild rash and be infective for 2-4 weeks.  

Mead tested his theory on variolation first with trials on six prisoners (offered freedom as an incentive) who all survived.  Followed by six orphans - who likewise all survived.  Then fourteen children at the Foundling hospital, who again, all survived.  After these encouraging results he widened his program.  During Mead's tenure in a medical capacity at the Foundling hospital -247 children were innoculated and only one died, almost certainly a better result than an inevitable outbreak.    

(Smallpox inoculation journal of Augusta Jones - one of the 14 children tested - courtesy Foundling Museum)
Mead was also - apparently - a bit of a bower bird, but one with exceptional taste.  During his lifetime he was a patron of the arts, collecting widely, having a specially designed gallery built at the end of his garden in 1720.  On his death in 1754 it took 56 days to auction off his mammoth collection of paintings, rare books, sculptures, gems and specimens.  

Mead is buried in Temple Church, London.  A memorial is located in the north aisle of Westminster abbey

Seriously - if there are any British readers here - go to the exhibit - it's on the site of the Foundling hospital, it's a lovely bit of history.  Take photos - tell me about it on Facebook.  I'll love you and hate you in equal measure.  These kind of historical figures shouldn't be forgotten. 

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