Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Read, William (d.1715)

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READ, Sir WILLIAM (d. 1715), empiric, was originally a tailor, and became progressively a mountebank and an itinerant quack. From 1687 to 1694 he boasted cures successively in Northamptonshire, Yorkshire, Oxford, Devonshire, Wiltshire, Somerset, Bath, and Windsor. In 1694 he was settled at York Buildings in the Strand, whence he issued the first of a series of charlatan advertisements, headed ‘Post nubila Phœbus: nihil absque Deo.’ Subsequently he advertised in the ‘Tatler’ that he had been thirty-five years in the practice of ‘couching cataracts, taking off all sorts of wens, curing wry necks and hair-lips [sic], without blemish.’ He is mentioned satirically in the ‘Spectator’ (No. 547), along with Roger Grant [q. v.], a rival oculist, John Moore, ‘the illustrious inventor of worm-powder,’ and ‘other eminent physicians.’ Read was knighted on 27 July 1705, ‘as a mark of royal favour for his great services, done in curing great numbers of seamen and soldiers of blindness gratis’ (Lond. Gazette, 30 July 1705). These benefits he advertised that he was ready to continue as long as the war lasted, and he extended the same to the poor Palatines upon their immigration. About the same time he became oculist in ordinary to Queen Anne. During this same year (1705) a poem entitled ‘The Oculist’ celebrated his skill and magnanimity in fulsome terms. In 1706 he published ‘A short but exact Account of all the Diseases incidental to the Eyes.’ The latter portion of the work is occupied with accounts of his cures and of his invention of ‘styptic water,’ which he proposed in many cases to substitute for the barbarous cauterisations in vogue. He claimed as specialities the treatment of cataract and the removal of cancers. Read's wealth enabled him to mix with the best literary society of his day, and on 11 April 1711 Swift wrote to Stella: ‘Henley would fain engage me to go with Steele, Rowe, &c., to an invitation at Sir William Read's; surely you have heard of him; he has been a mountebank, and is the queen's oculist. He makes admirable punch, and treats you in golden vessells.’ Read died at Rochester on 24 May 1715, and was buried in the cemetery of St. Nicholas in that city. His widow, Lady Read, continued his business in Durham Yard in the Strand. A mezzotint portrait of the oculist, by W. Faithorne, is reproduced in Caulfield's ‘Portraits of Remarkable Persons;’ another portrait was engraved by M. Burghers.

[Noble's Biogr. Hist. ii. 231; Ashton's Social Life under Queen Anne, pp. 323–5; Jeaffreson's Book about Doctors, p. 58; Swift's Journal to Stella, 11 April 1711; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthorpe; Chambers's Book of Days; Evans's Cat. of Engraved Portraits; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

T. S.