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The Doctor will see you now

At a time when we are rightfully lauding the efforts of all NHS staff for their work during the pandemic I’d like to take you back to a time when the medical profession was not quite as caring and helpful as today.

Dr William Butler 1535-1617

Let’s focus on Dr. William Butler, born in Ipswich around 1535. He attended Peterhouse College Cambridge where he gained a BA, MA and eventually became a Fellow in 1561. In a publication of 1898 called Brief Lives, William Butler was described as the “the greatest physician of his time“. The piece also describes him as an eccentric and a drunkard. He is reported to have lived at his Apothecaries shop in Cambridge along with an old servant woman called Nell, who’s main job seems to have been fetching her master home from the local tavern.

He first came to public notice in 1603 when he revived a local clergyman from an opium induced coma by the unorthodox method of slaughtering a cow and placing the senseless parson inside the “cowes warme belly” (I shudder to think what the Tabloid headline would be, had they been around in the 16th century).

James I 1566-1625

This brought him to the attention of King James who was at the time two Kings, James VI of Scotland and James I of England. Poor James had a chronic back problem which left him in constant pain. Dr Butler was called for and concocted his own remedy, which had a miraculous effect on the King relieving his pain considerably. According to Butlers records of his cure it’s hardly surprising that the king felt no more pain, as the medicine was so high in alcoholic content that James could have been trampled by an elephant and would hardly of felt it.

Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales 1594-1612

Although probably off his face at the time James was delighted with Butlers work and appointed him Court Physician, despite Butler having no medical qualifications whatsoever. As the incumbent of this position he was well placed in 1612 to treat the eighteen year old Henry Prince of Wales for Typhoid Fever. Its unclear what Butler’s diagnosis and treatment were, but they failed spectacularly and the popular Prince died. It could be argued that if Butler had managed to save the Prince, then the course of English history could have well turned out very differently. Henry was succeeded as the Prince of Wales by his younger brother Charles, later to become Charles I. Henry was a popular and charismatic figure who was much mourned by the population, Charles however was aloof and a little boring. Would Henry have got into the conflict with Parliament that sparked Civil War in England? We’ll never know.

It is unclear if he remained as Court Physician after the death of the young Prince, but what is known is that he set up a medical practice in the City of London. Again some of his remedies were to say the least, alternative. Fever patients, especially those with Malaria were treated by dropping them on the end of a rope through a trapdoor in London Bridge into the polluted waters below. My favourite however, is the cure for patients with epilepsy. They would be placed upon a chair and silently a man with a musket would creep up behind them and discharge the firearm a few inches above their heads!


One of his cures that did gain popularity was the concoction known as Dr Butlers Purging Ale. This was produced by taking a barrel of strong ale into which a canvas bag containing senna, agrimony, maidenhair fern and scurvy grass was placed and left to mature. This produced a very powerful laxative, which was popular with Londoners well into the reign of Charles II. The ale was available from Dr Butlers premises in what is now known as Masons Avenue, a small alley that runs towards the Guildhall. The location today is taken up appropriately enough by the “Old Doctor Butlers Head” Public House.

In an effort to strike a bit of balance, Dr Butler did hold views which went against medical thinking of the time and are held to be correct in the modern world. Butler is believed to have been an “empiric” physician who based his treatments not on any theory but purely on reasoning and experience. He campaigned strongly against the practice of bleeding a patient and the novel and fashionable use of dangerous chemical remedies. With regard to his sobriety and a legacy of eccentricity it’s worth remembering that the medical profession of the 17th century was a close knit affair. Anyone wanting to practice within the City of London had to be a member of the Royal College of Physicians. Although this rule was impossible to enforce, people who practiced outside this august body found themselves at the sharp end of a very rough PR campaign by the accredited physicians, who slandered and rubbished them at every opportunity. In a time where medicine would seem so strange to us now, its conceivable that Dr Butlers methods were not called into question by his patients and would be considered normal.

I came across the story of Dr Butler while researching a new tour for A London Miscellany Tours which I’m quite excited about as it works through GPS tracking on mobile phones. I’ll post a bit more as it goes forward, but for now I’d settle for raising a pint to the good Doctor in the pub that bears his name once it opens again, but easy on the senna please.

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