Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Mead, Richard
MEAD, RICHARD, M.D. (1673–1754), physician, eleventh child of Matthew Mead [q. v.], minister of Stepney, Middlesex, was born in that parish on 11 Aug. 1673. His father was ejected for nonconformity in 1662, but, his private means being large, continued to reside in comfort at Stepney, and educated his thirteen children at home. Richard learnt Latin till ten years old from John Nesbitt, a nonconformist, and from 1683 to 1689 was sent to a private school kept by Thomas Singleton, who was probably a good scholar, as he was at one time second master at Eton, and was certainly a sectary, since he declined to conform in 1662. Mead became a good classic and a consistent whig. He entered at the university of Utrecht in the beginning of the academical year at the end of 1689, and, under the instruction of Grævius for three years, acquired an extended knowledge of classical literature and antiquities. In 1692 he entered at Leyden as a student of medicine, attended the botany lectures of Paul Herman, and became acquainted with Boerhaave, then a young graduate and student of theology. The professor of physic was Archibald Pitcairne [q. v.], the chief of the iatromechanical school, who taught that physiological and pathological processes were the result of physical as distinct from chemical forces. Mead admired his lectures, and in spite of Pitcairne's reserved disposition obtained some private conversations with him.
In 1695, with his eldest brother, who had also belonged to the university of Utrecht, with Dr. Thomas Pellett [q. v.] of Cambridge, and with David Polhill, he travelled in Italy, visiting Turin, Florence, and then Padua, where he graduated M.D. on 16 Aug. 1695. He went on to Rome and Naples, and returned to London in the summer of 1696. A story, probable enough, but with one obvious inaccuracy, relates (Authentic Memoirs, 1755, p. 6) that he rediscovered among the lumber of a museum the bronze tablets inlaid with silver known as the Tabula Isiaca. They had been found in the Villa Caffarelli gardens in 1547, were carried with other plunder from Rome to Mantua, and thence to Turin, where Mead, who had heard much of their supposed Egyptian origin and meaning, asked leave to search for them, and was successful in finding them. They have ever since been duly exhibited in the treasury of the archives at Turin, but have lost their supposed interest, having been proved not to be Egyptian, but a Roman forgery of the time of Hadrian (Letter from J. H. Middleton, 30 March 1873).
Mead began practice in 1696 at Stepney, living in the house in which he had been born. To practise legally required a license from the College of Physicians, which he did not obtain, but was probably suffered as being on the outskirts of the jurisdiction. He certainly made no endeavour at concealment, for in 1702 he published ‘A Mechanical Account of Poisons,’ which excited so much attention that an abstract of it was printed in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ for 1703, and in the same year he was elected F.R.S. The hypothesis of the work is a result of the teaching of Pitcairne, to whose school of medical thought Mead at this time belonged, and the subject was partly suggested by some remarks of Herman the botanist and by specimens of venomous snakes which he had shown to his pupils. Mead dissected vipers, and gives an exact account of the mechanism which provides for the erection of the fang when the snake opens its mouth. Quoting the remark of Lucan (Pharsalia, ix. 617), ‘Pocula morte carent,’ he swallowed the poison, and thus confirmed Galen's experiment (Theriaca, bk. i.) on fowls, in proof of the fact that puncture is necessary to produce the effect. He thence proceeds to the conclusion that hard particles in the poison mechanically produce in the blood the fatal effect. The rules of treatment laid down are sounder than the argument, which is, however, supported by much learning and many interesting observations. In the same year he communicated to the Royal Society (Phil. Trans. 1703) an account of Bonomo's discovery of the acarus scabiei, the mite which causes the disease known as itch, up to that time supposed to be a constitutional disorder. It is remarkable that this was then disbelieved in England, though clearly demonstrated in Italy in 1687. In 1704 he published a second iatromechanical treatise on the influence of the sun and moon upon human bodies, ‘De imperio Solis ac Lunæ in Corpora Humana et Morbis inde oriundis.’ He had mastered Newton's discovery of attraction, and was anxious to show that the heavenly bodies affected the human frame as they affected one another. This work is much shallower than that on poisons. He republished both later in life (1743), the former with many additions, and with a statement surrendering as untenable the mechanical hypothesis.
Mead was elected into the council of the Royal Society in 1705, and again in 1707 and till his death, being vice-president in 1717. On 5 May 1703 he was elected physician to St. Thomas's Hospital, and then went to live in Crutched Friars, in the eastern part of the city of London, whence in 1711 he moved again to Austin Friars to a house vacated by Dr. George Howe [q. v.] Here he was often visited by Dr. John Radcliffe [q. v.], who admired his learning, was pleased by his deference, and gave him much help and countenance. On 4 Dec. 1707 he had been made M.D. at Oxford, and on 25 June 1708 passed the examination, and was admitted a candidate or member of the College of Physicians. He was elected a fellow on 9 April 1716, and was censor in 1716, 1719, and 1724. On 16 Aug. 1711 he was elected anatomy lecturer for four years to the Barber-Surgeons (Young, Annals of Barber-Surgeons, p. 375). His practice soon became large, and in 1714 he took Radcliffe's former house in Bloomsbury Square, and was the chief physician of the day (cf. Spectator, ed. Morley, p. 671). On 5 Jan. 1715 he resigned his physiciancy at St. Thomas's Hospital, received the thanks of the authorities, and was elected a governor. He was called in to see Queen Anne two days before her death, which he predicted to be imminent, though this was a view of the case which the ministry desired to discourage. His reputation was enhanced under the new dynasty. On 19 Dec. 1717 Hearne wrote in his diary: ‘My great friend, Dr. Richard Mead, hath recovered the Princess of Wales (as she is called) when the other physicians had certainly killed her, had their prescriptions been followed. This hath gained Dr. Mead a great reputation at Prince George's court, and Dr. Garth and Dr. Sloane are now out of favour as well as others’ (Diaries, ii. 56). In 1720 (Letter to Dr. Waller) he removed to Great Ormond Street, where his house occupied the site of the present Hospital for Sick Children. It was standing till a few years ago, and much of the old oak remained on the walls and staircase. The present writer has often seen out-patients there in a wainscotted room which formed part of Mead's library.
Mead's collection of books, of manuscripts, and of statuary, coins, gems, and drawings was the largest formed in his time. It contained more than ten thousand volumes, and after his death sold for 5,518l. 10s. 11d. (Nichols, Literary Anecdotes, vi. 218); his pictures, coins, and other antiquities realised 10,550l. 18s. (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. xi. 443). Pope, who was his patient, as he records in the epistle to Bolingbroke,
I'll do what Mead and Cheselden advise,
has also commemorated his bibliographical tastes (Epistle, iv. 10):—
Rare monkish manuscripts for Hearne alone,
And books for Mead and butterflies for Sloane.
The poet drank asses' milk by Mead's order (Elwin, Pope, ix. 326), and was interested in his pulvis antilyssis, a powder for curing hydrophobia (ib. p. 129). Warton mentions that when Mead objected on critical grounds to the expression ‘amor publicus,’ Pope could find no better defence than that he could allow a doctor of medicine to understand one Latin word, but not two together. The story is probably as untrue as Warton's suggestion that the description of John Woodward [q. v.] as Mummius in the ‘Dunciad’ is intended for Mead. His classical attainments were the result of careful training of the best kind, followed by much reading for pleasure in after-life, and were respected by the greatest scholars of the day. He had an enormous circle of friends, but Richard Bentley and Dr. John Freind were the two with whom he was most intimate. His intimacy with the master of Trinity was close and unbroken, and Monk states that ‘he was the only friend who in the latter part of Bentley's life possessed any material influence over him’ (Life of Bentley, ii. 114). He had in 1721 persuaded Edmund Chishull [q. v.] to publish the inscription in boustrophedon found at Sigeum, and Bentley wrote him a long epistle the day after he read the book. It was at his instance that Bentley revised the ‘Theriaca’ of Nicander, and the copy of Nicander edited by Gorræus given by Mead to Bentley, with the latter's notes and a prefixed Latin epistle to the physician, is preserved in the British Museum (Dr. Monk in Museum Criticum, Nos. iii. and iv.). With Dr. Freind his intimacy was still closer; they spent much time together, and though Mead was a whig and Freind a tory, they had many opinions and tastes in common. Both had studied chemistry, but both were at first attached to the mechanical school in medicine. They were elected fellows of the College of Physicians on the same day, and ate sweet cakes together as censors. They were chosen at the same court of the Barber-Surgeons to lecture on anatomy to the company. Both were devoted to classical learning, and they were agreed in the motto of Freind's medal, ‘Medecina vetus et nova unam facimus utramque.’ Both had read the medical writers of the middle ages as well as those of classical times. Mead enjoyed the ‘Schola Salernitana’ (Letter to Dr. E. Waller, 19 April 1720), and had the earliest edition of the ‘Rosa Anglica’ (his copy is now in the library of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society), books on which Freind dwells with pleasure in his ‘History of Physic.’ Mead wrote on 1 Sept. 1716, in reply to a request from Freind, a letter on the treatment of small-pox, and Freind's ‘De Purgantibus in secunda Variolarum Confluentium Febre adhibendis Epistola,’ 1719, is addressed to Mead, of whom he says in the introduction that they had long been accustomed ‘idem sentire atque idem judicare.’ When Freind was committed to the Tower at the time of Atterbury's plot, he wrote thence, ‘indulgentia Præfecti, in presentia Warderi,’ to Mead, ‘De quibusdam Variolarum Generibus Epistola,’ dated 30 March 1723. Mead visited him in the Tower, and ultimately procured from Walpole, when prescribing for that minister, an order for his release. He had sent Freind Le Clerc's ‘History of Medicine,’ and asked his opinion of it. The result was the admirable ‘History of Physick from the Time of Galen, in a Discourse written to Dr. Mead.’ Garth and Arbuthnot, and most of the physicians of his time, except Cheyne and Woodward, were his friends. It is difficult to ascertain whether there is any truth in the story that he fought with Woodward (it is, however, circumstantially narrated in ‘Mist's Journal,’ 13 June 1719), and that the tiny figures at the gate of the stable-yard in the picture by Virtue of Gresham College (opposite p. 33, John Ward, Lives of the Professors of Gresham College; cf. Hawkins, Life of Johnson, p. 245) represent Woodward laying down his sword in submission to Mead.
Numerous dedications were addressed to Mead, some against his will. Smart Lethieullier and Martin Foulkes used to consult with him about antiquities (Nichols, Illustrations, iii. 535). The Rev. F. Wise addressed him about the Berkshire White Horse in 1738; Nathaniel Cotton [q. v.] on a kind of scarlet fever at St. Albans in 1749. Dr. Davies in 1732 bequeathed to him his papers on Cicero, and he gave them to Thomas, the nephew of Dr. Richard Bentley, in order to complete and bring out an edition of the ‘Offices.’ They were burnt by accident in Thomas Bentley's lodgings in the Strand, as is stated by Mead in a Latin letter, printed in the third edition of Davies's edition of Cicero, ‘De Natura Deorum’ (Monk, Life of Bentley, ii. 357). Warburton, writing to Dr. Birch, 15 Dec. 1739, of a pamphlet of Crousaz, says: ‘I ordered him to send one to Dr. Mead, as a man to whom all people that pretend to letters ought to pay their tribute on account of his great eminence in them and patronage of them.’ Lewis Theobald acknowledges his help to him in the preparation of his edition of Shakespeare (Nichols, Illustrations, ii. 114, 732). William Lauder [q. v.], the literary forger, had received a subscription from him, and when detected wrote on 9 April 1751 a long letter of vain, feeble justification to him. The king of Naples wrote to ask for his works, and in return invited him to his palace, and sent him the first two volumes of Bajardi's book on the ‘Antiquities of Herculaneum.’ He gave an almost unique copy of Servetus to De Boze, the secretary of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres in Paris. His name occurs in most of the subscription-lists of the historical and other learned books which appeared in his time. He took a large-paper copy when, in 1724, ‘The History of his own Time’ of his former patient, Bishop Burnet, appeared, and ten copies, five of them on large paper, of his friend John Ward's ‘Lives of the Professors of Gresham College.’ Endless appeals for influence came to him, and he was the one person who could approach every one, even the Duke of Somerset, who was so difficult of access (ib. iv. 249). The Rev. George Kelly, an Irish clergyman, shut up in the Tower for corresponding with Bishop Atterbury, was pardoned by his influence, and writes of him, ‘that great and good man, Dr. Mead, to whose intercession I owe my life, and all the liberties allowed me in confinement’ (Letter in ib. v. 149). He frequented, for social purposes, Rawthmell's Coffee-house in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, but used to see patients and give opinions on written cases at a given hour at a coffee-house in the city (usually Batson's, against the Royal Exchange) as well as at home, and made many professional journeys into the country in his coach-and-four. He used to drive six horses when he went to his country house near Windsor. The king, Sir Robert Walpole, and most people of fashion consulted him. He was intimate with Sir Isaac Newton, and attended him in his last illness, as he also did Bishop Burnet. His income from practice is stated by his librarian, Mr. Hocker, to have been for many years between five and six thousand pounds, while in one year he received more than seven thousand pounds; but if many fees were paid to him, he also saw numerous patients without fee, and gave money as well as medical advice to many who needed both. With the exception of one aggressive Johnian, he never took a fee from a clergyman.
In 1719, in consequence of the serious epidemic of plague at Marseilles, great alarm was felt in London lest an outbreak should occur. The king was in Hanover, and the lords justices, through Craggs, then secretary of state, desired Mead to draw up a statement concerning the prevention of the plague. He accordingly published in 1720 ‘A Short Discourse concerning Pestilential Contagion and the Methods to be used to Prevent it.’ Seven editions appeared within a year, an eighth, with large additions, in 1722, and a ninth in 1744. The book is lucid and interesting; every one could understand it, and it was effectual in allaying the public alarm. The practical conclusion at which the author arrives is in accordance with the views held by all sanitary authorities at the present day, and is that the isolation in proper places of the sick is more effectual in checking the progress of an epidemic than a general quarantine or than measures of fumigation. George Pye in 1721 and others wrote attacks upon the book. In 1721 he superintended the inoculation, at the request of the Prince of Wales, of seven condemned criminals. All recovered favourably, and this established the practice of inoculation at the time. On 18 Oct. 1723 he delivered the Harveian oration at the College of Physicians. It is for the most part a defence of the position of physicians in Greece and in Rome, showing that they were always honoured and often wealthy in ancient society. He supports his statements by a variety of passages in the classics, and by arguments drawn from representations on coins and medals. Conyers Middleton attacked the oration, and maintained that the physicians of Rome were slaves. Ward replied, and some lesser writers took part in the controversy.
Mead's first wife had died in February 1719. She was Ruth, daughter of John Marsh, a merchant of London; was married in July 1699, and bore eight children, of whom four died in infancy, while three daughters and one son survived her. On 14 Aug. 1724 Mead married Anne, daughter of Sir Rowland Alston of Odell, Bedfordshire. She bore him no children. In 1727 he was appointed physician to George II, and afterwards had Sir Edward Wilmot [q. v.] and Dr. Frank Nicholls [q. v.], his sons-in-law, as his colleagues. His second daughter married Charles Bertie of Uffington, Lincolnshire.
Mead did not write much himself. But he edited in 1724 W. Cowper's ‘Myotomia Reformata,’ the best general account of the anatomy of the human muscular system of its time, and from 1722 to 1733 he provided the means necessary for a complete edition of De Thou's ‘History’ in seven volumes, folio. He bought some materials which Thomas Carte [q. v.] had collected from that historian, who was a refugee in France, and paid Buckley to edit the work. On 11 Feb. 1741 he read a paper at the Royal Society on the invention of Samuel Lutton for ventilating the holds of ships, and, in relation to the same subject, wrote in 1749 ‘A Discourse on Scurvy,’ which is chiefly occupied with remarks on that disease as it was observed on Lord Anson's voyage round the world. He urged the value of Lutton's invention on the lords of the admiralty, and after ten years persuaded them to adopt it. He corresponded with Boerhaave, and made him a present of John Wigan's folio edition of Aretæus, when the Leyden professor was preparing his own edition, published in 1735, of that medical writer. He urged Dr. Samuel Jebb in 1729 to undertake an edition of the works of Roger Bacon, which appeared in 1733, and he gave pecuniary help to many lesser literary projects. In 1747 he wrote a preface to Chishull's posthumous ‘Travels in Turkey’ and published ‘De Variolis et Morbillis,’ and appended to it a translation of the first treatise on the subject by Muhammad ibn Zacharia al Rhazis, a physician of the ninth century, from an Arabic manuscript at Leyden, of which Boerhaave sent him a copy. The translation was edited by Thomas Hunt, Arabic professor at Oxford, from two versions made for Mead, one by Solomon Negri, a native of Damascus, and the other by John Gagnier. Mead praises Sydenham in these treatises, but adds very little of his own. In 1749 he published ‘Medica Sacra, a Commentary on the Diseases mentioned in Scripture,’ in which he explains Job's disease as elephantiasis, Saul's as melancholia, Jehoram's as dysentery, Hezekiah's as an abscess, Nebuchadnezzar's as hypochondriasis, and discusses leprosy, palsy, and demoniacal possession. In 1751 he published his last book, ‘Monita et Præcepta Medica,’ a summary of his practical experience. It is clear that he had not kept copious notes of the many cases he had seen, and hence the grounds of his opinions are not sufficiently clear, and the total of information contained in the book is small. A comparison of the elder William Heberden's [q. v.] ‘Commentaries’ with Mead's ‘Precepts’ shows of what permanent value a concise treatise may be when it is based upon a series of observations recorded at the time, and how empty it is when it rests on no such basis. He introduced the method of slowly compressing the abdominal walls during tapping for ascites, or abdominal dropsy, with a view to preventing fainting or collapse.
By a will proved 17 Jan. 1754 Erasmus Lewis [q. v.] made Mead a bequest of 100l.; before the end of the same month the doctor was observed to be himself declining in health (Letter of Dr. R. Pococke; Nichols, Illustrations, iii. 685), and he died on 16 Feb. 1754 at his house in Great Ormond Street, after an illness of five days only. He was buried 23 Feb. in the Temple Church. Dr. Johnson said, ‘Dr. Mead lived more in the broad sunshine of life than almost any man.’ The world in which he desired to live was that of learning, the taste for which in every branch began in his boyhood and continued to old age. He was a universal reader, but not a perfect observer in all directions. His natural history was that of a Londoner, as he shows in his account of the scene, familiar to all rustics, of small birds mobbing a hawk. He thinks that the small birds are trying to get away, but that fright prevents them, and fails to observe that their voices and actions are those of exultant pigmies in a crowd safely attacking a common enemy, and not of trembling victims. If, however, he was not an observer of the first order, he brought learning, careful reasoning, and kindly sympathy to the bedside of his patients, and very many sick men must have been the better for his visits. His life was an example of what Aristotle calls megaloprepeia, the magnificence befitting a great man. Of the many men who have grown rich in professions, few have expended their riches during their lives so generously and so wisely as Mead.
His bust by Roubiliac was given to the College of Physicians by Dr. Askew [q. v.], and stands in the censor's room of the college, which also possesses three portraits of him. A portrait by Allan Ramsay, painted in 1740, was purchased by the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery, London, in June 1857. Another, by Michael Dahl, was lent by Sir M. S. Wilmot, bart., to the second loan exhibition, South Kensington. He presented the college with a fine marble bust of Harvey, which stands in the library. A beautiful flowering plant is called after him, ‘Dodecatheon Meadia,’ mentioned by Erasmus Darwin,
Meadia's soft chains five suppliant beaux confers
(Loves of the Plants, p. 61), but the footnote is an error, for the name was given by Mark Catesby, and not by Mead himself (Letter from F. Darwin, January 1893). His gold-headed cane, given to him by Radcliffe, is preserved in the College of Physicians.
The best collected editions of Mead's works are ‘The Medical Works of Dr. Richard Mead,’ 4to, London, 1762, and ‘The Medical Works of Richard Mead, M.D.,’ 3 vols. 8vo, Edinburgh, 1765. His son Richard, who survived him, married Anne, daughter of William Gore of Thring, Hertfordshire, but left no descendants.[Authentic Memoirs of the Life of Richard Mead, M.D. London, 1755 (by Matthew Maty [q. v. ); Munk's Coll. of Phys. ii. 40; W. MacMichael's Gold-headed Cane, 2nd ed. 1828, and Lives of British Physicians, 1830; Wheatley and Cunningham's London, passim; Notes and Queries, 7th ser. i. 114; J. Channing's Rhazes de Variolis et Morbillis, London, 1766; J. Freind's Opera Omnia Medica, London, 1733; S. Jebb's Fratris Rogeri Bacon Ordinis Minorum Opus Major, Venice, 1750, Preface; the Sloane MSS. in Brit. Mus. contain a few unimportant autograph letters of Mead; G. Pye's Discourse of the Plague, wherein Dr. Mead's notions are refuted, London, 1721; Caii Spectrum, or Dr. Keye's Charge against Dr. M., London, 1721; Dr. Mead: His Short Discourse explained, or His Account of Pestilential Contagion exploded, London, 1722; Works; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. v. 284.]