While putting a book back in our store I spotted a little collection of unassuming looking books that have the same two words in common “king’s evil”. These books, which have all been rebound therefore hiding their true ages, describe various ways that the king’s evil, or scrofula, was treated. The term scrofula seems to have been used to cover various illness throughout its history though it is most commonly connected to tuberculosis of the neck. The various symptoms it encompassed included swelling of the upper lip, tumours, blindness or weakened sight, swollen glands, ulcers, and bone decay. It is referred to as the king’s evil as it was believed to be cured by being touched by the king. The authors in this little collection all advocate the use of their own cures, with one of them referring to their “specific remedy”. They don’t go into much details about the ingredients in these cures and one of them states “So long as the thing is safe, and answers the end propos’d, it is, I think, no great matter if the patient knows its proper name or no”.
Let’s start with the youngest of the books, the explanatorily titled: A treatise on struma or scrofula, commonly called the king’s evil : in which the impropriety of considering it as an hereditary disease is pointed out; more rational causes are assigned; and a successful method of treatment is recommended (STORE 118:20). Written by a surgeon to the London-dispensary, Thomas White, and published in 1784, it puts the appearance of scrofula in children down to their “improper management” [pg 16]. He believes that children with their “fat, soft, flabby feel” suffer from this disease due to too much sleep and over feeding, and they are dressed so restrictively that they can’t breathe properly nor exercise enough. For older sufferers the causes include wounds and external injuries, change of diet, extreme cold and variable weather. White goes on to mention how the disease can be prevented through good diet, exercising, and good hygiene, and that the most successful method of treatment is a mild preparation of mercury. Other treatments he mentions include the use of sea water tonics, various lotions, steamed herbs and electricity. This interesting method involves stimulating the affected part with electricity, insulating the patient and drawing sparks from the tumour.
We move from the modern use of electricity down the more traditional herbal root with An essay on the nature and cure of the king’s evil : deduced from observation and practice, The 4th ed., with additions, and a great variety of cases and their remedies, with a plate of the herb vervain: published, for the good of mankind, particularly the common people by John Morley (STORE 118:15). First published in 1760 and running to 32 editions, this book aims to show people how to cure themselves without spending the little money they have on pills and elixirs that appear in “specious advertisements”. The author explains that he needs to see his patients so he can make a proper assessment of their symptoms and make a better judgment on their treatment. He also takes no payment for his time, although he does mention that some neighbouring gentlemen and ladies have given him small acknowledgments of tea, wine, venison, small pieces of plate and other gifts. The main cure, unsurprisingly giving the one plate in the book, involves the use of Vervain. The root of the herb should be tied around the patients neck with a white satin ribbon that is long enough to let the root rest on their stomach. The book also contains a recipe to make an ointment which can be applied to sores which is made out of the herb, leek leaves and boiled pork lard. If this doesn’t appeal, another remedy involves making up a cataplasm (poultice) including a garden snail minus its shell and parsley. Why a snail? It does make you wonder about peoples thought processes.
Another snappy titled book covering this subject is A perfect cure for the King’s evil, (whether hereditary or accidental,) by effectual alcalious medicines: faithfully approv’d by the experience of eighteen years practice, and the testimony of above four hundred patients restor’d beyond relapse by Thomas Fern  (STORE 118:21). Fern, a chirurgeon, goes on to give a p.s on the title page explaining that he was cured by the same medicine described in the book after suffering for eleven years and consulting doctors in London. He describes how he was eventually cured and became apprentice to the doctor that saved his leg from being amputated. He is very much against old wives cures and believes that only doctors and surgeons can cure it, he certainly believes that “Divines do not work Miracles now a-days; neither can they cure the King’s evil, I believe, by Virtue either of there Function, sanctity, Blessing”. He goes on to state that he has a DIPLOMA (authors capitals) and a license. Yet he states further on “And here I cannot omit one observation by the by; that children also who are begotten at improper Times of the moon, have been often subject to be afflicted with This Evil, and to the last degree too of virulency. Let this be a warning to Marry’d people”. Unlike the author above, he thinks that the disease can be hereditary and is immediately caused by the ”praeternatural acidity in the serum of the blood”. Although he discusses the treatments he offers and the wonderful affects they have he doesn’t say what they are made of at all (more snail perhaps). He offers to send his medicines to people who are unable to come and see him if they write to him with full description of their illness.
The next book in this interesting group makes a number of references to Thomas Fern. Written by an author who also suffered from the king’s evil, An easie and safe method for curing the King’s evil : With several observations which may be of use and service to people afflicted with that distemper. To which is added, A specimen of success, in a faithful relation of many extraordinary cures on men, women, and children. In a letter to a friend by William Vickers, M.A. (STORE 118:17) was published in this 6th edition in 1711. The title of this volume was changed over the years, one year it was adjusted to include: “Account of many extraordinary Cures on Men, Women, and Children, with plain Reasons, why these Illnesses are not Curable by the Common and Known Methods of Physick and Surgery”. Vickers spends part of the book defending himself from various attacks, be they of malice and envy, from ignorant people or from those who criticised him for not having a qualification in medicine. He specifically refers to “D. Turners remarkable case insurgery” which is probably Daniel Turner’s Apologia Chyrurgica: a vindication of the noble art of chyrurgery from the gross abuses offer’d thereunto by mountebanks, quacks, barbers etc., published 1695, and “Ferne’s Perface to the King’s Evil perfectly cur’d”. He disagrees with Fern’s theory of acid in the blood and mentions the experiments of Robert Boyle to justify his reasoning. On page 42 he states “ ..I appeal to some of Mr Fern’s own patients, who have been under my care, and have through God’s blessing been PERFECTLY cured by me”. Fern’s book is dedicated to George Boddington whos son he claims to have treated with success. However, Vickers mentions the death of a James Boddington, the son of a turkey merchant who died after treatment. We can assume that this is the same family. There is a George Boddington (1646-1719) mentioned in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, who was in the turkey trade and further investigations reveals that he had a son called James who died in 1710. There is definitely something going on between Vickers and Fern, whether it was personal, over clients, differing methods of treatment, varying ideas about surgery and religion (Vickers was a reverend, Fern a Surgeon) we will never know.
Altogther these books give us an insighful look into the various treatments for one disease. They also show us the colourful characters, be they surgeons, doctors or quacks, trying to provide the common man and woman with a cure to this “evil” disease.