Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Greatrakes, Valentine

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GREATRAKES, VALENTINE (1629–1683), whose name is also written Greatrak’s, Gratrick, Gretrakes, Greatracks, &c., ‘the stroker,’ belonged to the old English family of Greatorex, but his father, William, was settled in Ireland on his estate at Affane in the county of Waterford. Here Valentine was born 14 Feb. 1628-9; the day suggested his Christian name. His mother was Mary, third daughter of Sir Edward Harris, knt., chief justice of Munster. He was educated, first at the free school of Lismore till he was about thirteen, and was then intending to continue his studies at Dublin, when the death of his father and the breaking out of the Irish rebellion in 1641 led his mother to bring him to England. Here he remained about six years, for a time in the house of his mother’s brother, Edmund Harris, and on his uncle’s death with John Daniel Getsius [q. v.] at Stoke Gabriel, Devonshire, who directed his reading. He returned to Ireland about 1647, and for a year led a retired and contemplative life at the castle of Cappoquin; but when Cromwell opened his campaign in Ireland he joined the parliamentary forces, and served in the regiment of Colonel Robert Phaire, the regicide, under Roger Boyle, lord Broghill [q. v.], afterwards first earl of Orrery. He married, and when the army was disbanded in 1656 became a county magistrate, registrar for transportations, and clerk of the peace for county Cork, through the influence of Phaire, then governor of Cork. At the Restoration in 1660 he was deprived of his offices, and betook himself to a life of contemplation, giving ‘himself up wholly to the study of goodness and sincere mortification’ (Dr.Henry More). In 1662 the idea seized him that he had the power of curing the king’s evil (or scrofula). He kept the matter a secret for some time, but at last communicated it to his wife, who ‘conceived it to be a strange imagination,’ and jokingly told him that he had an opportunity of testing his power at once on a boy in the neighbourhood, William Maher or Meagher of Salterbridge in the parish of Lismore. Greatrakes laid his hands on the affected parts with prayer, and within a month the boy was healed. Several similar cases of scrofula were partially or entirely cured in the same way, and Greatrakes was encouraged to undertake the treatment of ague and other diseases with the like success. The reports of these extraordinary cures brought him a vast number of patients during the next three years from various parts of Ireland and also from England. He set apart three days each week for the exercise of his cure. The dean and bishop of Lismore remonstrated with him in vain for practising medicine without a license from his ordinary. On 6 April 1665 he visited his old friend Phaire at Cahirmore, co. Cork, and cured him of acute ague. To this there is independent testimony in unpublished letters by Phaire's son, Alexander Herbert. Among his patients in Ireland in 1665 was Flamsteed the astronomer [q. v.], then a young man suffering from chronic rheumatism and other ailments. Flamsteed derived little or no benefit from the stroking. Greatrakes spent July 1665 in Dublin (cf. Newes, 5 July 1665). There he received an invitation through Sir George Rawdon from Viscount Conway to come to Ragley to cure his wife [see Conway, Anne] of perpetual headaches. Henry More, the Cambridge platonist, and George Rust, dean of Connor, had recommended the application to Greatrakes. Greatrakes hesitated at first, but at last consented. He embarked for Bristol in January 1666, and after exercising his skill on many patients by the way arrived at Ragley, near Alcester, in Warwickshire, 24 Jan. He stayed at Ragley about three weeks, and though he did not relieve Lady Conway many persons in the neighbourhood benefited by his treatment. From Ragley he was invited to Worcester (13 Feb.), and in the accounts of that city there is an item of 10l. 14s. for 'the charge of entertainment of Mr. Gratrix' (Notes and Queries, June 1864, p. 489). By direction of Lord Arlington, secretary of state, and by persuasion of Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey [q. v.], he almost immediately moved on to London. There he stayed for several months in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and treated a great number of patients gratuitously with varied success. He failed at Whitehall before the king and his courtiers. At the end of February 1665-6 Henry Stubbe, a physician of Stratford-on-Avon, published at Oxford the 'Miraculous Conformist,' an account of Greatrakes's treatment, attributing his success to miraculous agency. David Lloyd (1625-1691) [q. v.] replied in 'Wonders no Miracles,' by attacking Greatrakes's private character. Greatrakes thereupon vindicated himself in an autobiographical letter addressed to Robert Boyle [q. v.], accompanied by fifty-three testimonials from Boyle, Andrew Marvell, Ralph Cudworth, John Wilkins (afterwards bishop of Chester), Benjamin Whichcote, D.D., one of Greatrakes's patients, and other persons of known honesty and intelligence. His procedure, according to More and Rust, both of whom he met at Ragley, always resembled a religious ceremony. 'The form of words he used were, "God Almighty heal thee for his mercy's sake;" and if the patients professed to receive any benefit he bade them give God the praise.' By the application of his hand 'at last he would drive (the morbific matter) into some extreme part, suppose the fingers, and especially the toes, or the nose or tongue; into which parts when he had forced it, it would make them so cold and insensible that the patient could not feel the deepest prick of a pin; but as soon as his hand should touch those parts, or gently rub them, the whole distemper vanished, and life and sense immediately returned to those parts.' His failure in some cases, not apparently more hopeless than others in which he had been successful, could not be explained satisfactorily. He deprecated the description of his cure as miraculous, but admitted that 'he had reason to believe that there was something in it of an extraordinary gift of God' (A Brief Account, &c. p. 34). More quoted Greatrakes's cures as a confirmatory illustration of his own ingenious speculation 'that there may be very well a sanative and healing contagion, as well as a morbid and venemous' (Enthusiasmus Triumphatus, Scholia on Sect, 58). In modern times the cures have been reasonably attributed by Deleuze and others to animal magnetism (Histoire Critique du Magn. An. ii. 249). Greatrakes's treatment was gratuitous, except in the case of Lady Conway, when he demanded and received 155l. for the expenses of the journey and on account of the hazards of the enraged seas.' Greatrakes rejected cases which were manifestly incurable.

On his return to Ireland at the end of May 1666 Greatrakes assumed the life of a country gentleman, having an income of 1,000l., and only occasionally practised his cure. He died at Affane 28 Nov. 1683. In his will (dated 20 Nov. 1683, and proved at Dublin 26 April 1684) he directed that he should be buried in Lismore Cathedral; but this direction was not complied with, and he was buried beside his father at Affane. He was twice married; by his first wife, Ruth (d. 1675), daughter of Sir William Godolphin, knt. (1611-1696) [q. v.], he had two sons, William and Edmund, and one daughter, Mary; by his second wife, Alice (Tilson), widow of Rotherham, esq., of Camolin, co. Wexford, he left no issue.

Greatrakes published 'A Brief Account of Mr. Valentine Greatrak's [sic], and divers of the strange cures by him lately performed. Written by himself in a letter addressed to the Honble Robert Boyle, esq. Whereunto are annexed the testimonials of several eminent and worthy persons of the chief matters of fact therein related,' small 8vo, London, 1666. Prefixed is an engraving by William Faithorne the elder [q. v.] representing Greatrakes stroking with both hands the head of a youth ; this has been several times reproduced.

[Greatrakes's Brief Account (as above); Stubbe's Miraculous Conformist, 1666, 4to; Lloyd's Wonders no Miracles, p. 166; Pechlini Observationes Physico-Medicæ, Hamburg, 1691, pp. 474 sq.; Thoresby in Philos. Trans. No. 256, 1699; Deleuze, Hist. Crit. du Magnétisme Animal, Paris, 1819, ii. 247 sq.; Glanvil's Saducismus Triumphatus, 1681, i. 90 sq., ii. 247; Douglas's Criterion, or Miracles Examined, pp. 205 sq.; Rawdon Papers, ed. Berwick, 1819, pp. 205 sq.; Rev. Sam. Hayman (who was descended from Greatrakes's only sister) in Jewitt's Reliquary, 1863-4, iv. 86 sq., 236; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iii., 3rd ser. v. vi., 6th ser. ix.; manuscript communication from the Rev. Alex. Gordon, with extracts from Phaire Papers.]

W. A. G.