A new exhibition based on research undertaken on Georgian papers at the Royal Archives by King’s academic staff and students is now open to the public. The exhibition stems from work initially conducted as part of the King’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship scheme, in which students worked with King’s academics on a research project. The theme of the exhibition is medicine and exploration in the long eighteenth century and includes facsimiles of Royal papers relating to the last hours of George IV, extracts from a “book of cures” by Lady Augusta Murray, wife of Prince Augustus Frederick, alongside King’s College London Archives’ recent digitised notebook on the 1769 observation of the transit of Venus by the Royal household.
A PDF version of the exhibition content can be downloaded here. This version has been amended due to copyright restrictions so if you would like to have the full exhibition experience you will have to visit the display cabinets at King’s Building entrance hall on the Strand Campus. The exhibition will be running from 29 November 2016 until 3 February 2017.
Ayesha Hussain and Anna Maerker, Department of History, King’s College London
In his old age, King George III suffered from blindness due to cataracts in both eyes.The affliction was movingly documented in portraits from 1820 by artists Charles Turner and Samuel William Reynolds (Figs.1-2). The King’s doctors considered the possibility of an operation to remove the cataracts, but ultimately decided against it, as they feared a failed attempt to cure his blindness might further damage the aged King’s disturbed mental state. In general, however, in this period surgeons and eye specialists called oculists had already developed effective operations to remove cataracts. Two of the most important innovators in the treatment of cataracts and other eye complains were the royal oculists Baron de Wenzel and John Taylor.
Baron Michael de Wenzel (or Wenzell, 1724-1790), oculist-in-ordinary to King George III from 1772 until his death in 1790, was an inspiration to many British and European eye surgeons (Fig.3). His work on the treatment of cataracts, in particular, was very influential. Surgeons in the eighteenth century had no access to modern-day anaesthetic, and so eye surgeons had to develop methods which would cause the least suffering. Wenzel was known for the fast pace and accuracy of his operations. It has been recorded that his method of cataract removal lasted less than thirty seconds, using what became to be known as the ‘Wenzel knife’ to form a crescent-like incision in the eye. The Wenzel knife was custom-made by Paul Savigny, the first cutler in England to become a specialist in making surgical instruments (Fig.4). Smaller than the usual opthalmic knives, the Wenzel knife was designed to lessen the escape of the ‘aqueous humour’ in the eye. The virtuosity of Wenzel’s surgical performances meant that sometimes members of high society would watch them for entertainment, as David Chodowiecki’s etching suggests (Fig.5).
Wenzel competed for royal appointments with a dynasty of eminent oculists, the Taylors. John Taylor (1703-1772), who had studied at St Thomas’s Hospital specialising in diseases of the eye, was appointed to George II as his personal oculist in 1736, after travelling for almost a decade as an itinerant eye-doctor (Fig.6). With degrees from the universities of Basel, Liege and Cologne, and as a fellow of the College of Physicians, Taylor was a well-known oculist He self-advertised constantly, referring to himself as the ‘Chevalier.’ In his autobiography, he stated that he was ‘the most public man under the sun, being personally known not only in every town in Europe, but in every part of the globe.’ Ironically, it is said that John Taylor became blind himself, just before his death in 1772.
Both John Taylor’s son and grandson also became eye-doctors, John Taylor (1724-1787), on the death of Baron de Wenzel, was made oculist to George III. John Taylor (1757-1832) was oculist to both George III and George IV. Perhaps the most famous episode in the second John Taylor’s career was his cure of the ‘The Blind Boy of Ightham.’ The eight-year-old William Taylor had been born blind, with cataracts in both eyes. John Taylor operated on him, in front of sixteen spectators, and as soon as the first cataract was removed, the boy reported his “Wonder, at the strange Shapes, Forms, and Colours of many Things, so incomprehensible about him, that He beheld the Room full of Lights, and Moons”.
Restoring vision was important not just for the King himself, but also for his subjects. Loss of vision meant loss of livelihood for many: “The importance of this organ [the eye] and its utility to every individual need not be urged, but to the poor it is their all. Deprived of their sight, their endeavours either for their own support or that of their offspring are cut off and they are on their parishes and a misery to themselves.” A particular threat to the eyes was the condition of ophthalmy, described in 1800 by Edward Moore Noble as ‘a certain redness or inflammation of the eye, with pain.’ Sometimes, when the Ophthalmy was very severe, it would cause the anterior chamber of the eye to fill with pus and eventually caused a paralysis of the retina. As royal physicians Wathen Waller observed, “The soldiers and sailors from their being more confined together have been the greatest sufferers.” In 1802, for instance, the Egyptian Ophthalmia ravaged the Second Regiment of Argyllshire Fencibles. In response, specialist institutions were founded across Britain, especially in the South. Eye hospitals opening in Bristol were especially important as they were partly used to treat naval officers and soldiers.
Royal Archives, Windsor: Letter from Wathen-Waller to the Duke of Cumberland. Ref: 4720-1, Main Series.
William Oldys, Observations on the cure of William Taylor, the blind boy of Ightham, in Kent; who being born with cataracts in both eyes, was at eight years of age, brought to sight, on the 8th of October, 1751, by Mr. John Taylor, jun. oculist, … Also some address to the publick, for a contribution towards the foundation of an Hospital for the blind, already begun by some noble personages. [London]: Printed by E. Owen, in Hand-Court, Holborn, 1753.
James Ware, Observations on the cataract, and gutta serena: including a translation of Wenzel’s treatise on the cataract: a new chapter on the operation of largely puncturing the capsule of the crystalline humour: and many additional remarks on the gutta serena. Third edition London: Mawman, Cox; Edinburgh: Black, 1812.
Portraits of King George III in blindness: Charles Turner (1820), National Portrait Gallery NPG D16056. Samuel William Reynolds (1820), National Portrait Gallery, NPG D8002.
Ophthalmia, Wellcome Images L0033534 “Diagrams of ophthalmia, inflammation of the eye” From: John Vetch, An account of the ophthalmia which has appeared in England since the return of the British Army from Egypt. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807.
Baron de Wenzel: portrait by John Conde, 1789 (British Museum, no. 1862, 1213.22)
Wenzel operating: Etching by Daniel Chodowiecki, Wellcome Images V0015913.
Trade card of Paul Savigny: British Museum (museum number: Heal,52.91)
Wenzel knife: in Ware 1812. [Foyle Special Collections]
Operation for removing cataracts: in Ware 1812. [Foyle Special Collections]
John Taylor: The National Library of Medicine, Digital Collections. Image ID: B024718
Rick Atkinson, freelance military historian, was an Omohundro Institute Georgian Papers Fellow who spent last April researching at the Royal Archives. He is researching the first volume of a projected trilogy about the American Revolution and used his time in the archives to look at the role of King George III in military decisions, specifically those relating to espionage and expeditionary warfare, starting in early 1775 and carrying through the Battle of Princeton in 1777.
I’ve worked in some exotic locations—Mogadishu, Mali, Baghdad, Kazakhstan, Riyadh—but none more evocative than the top of the Round Tower in Windsor Castle, where I spent the month of April 2016, as a Georgian Papers fellow. The researcher’s path to this archive is steep: through the Henry VIII Gate and the Norman Gatehouse, up 102 stone steps in the Round Tower and then another 21 wooden steps to the reading room. It’s as close to time travel as I’ve ever experienced.
As an author and a military historian from Washington, D.C., I’m working on a trilogy about the American Revolution. My previous books have been about four 20th century wars, each of them expeditionary, and I’m intrigued by the challenges of waging war at great distance in the 18th century. In the official and private papers of George III, complemented by the vast trove of Treasury, Colonial Office, Admiralty, War Office, and Audit Office documents in the National Archive at Kew, the depth and breadth of those challenges comes clear. So does the extent to which the King is closely involved in all aspects of logistics, politics, strategy, diplomacy, naval affairs, and intelligence collection during the Revolution. His appetite for information is enormous. What he knows is impressive; what he doesn’t know will help cost Britain her American colonies.
The American stereotype of a tyrannical nincompoop quickly dissolves with a little exposure to the Georgian papers. I also spent time examining the correspondence and documents of Queen Charlotte and two eventual heirs to the throne, George IV and William IV. In these papers we see the worries and preoccupations of a husband and father, and of a monarch wrestling with the fretful issue of how to prepare a prince to become a king in a changing world. I also took several days to examine the military maps of George III in the Print Room and to examine some of the King’s personal holdings in the Royal Library.
I couldn’t be more grateful to those responsible for opening up the Georgian Papers and giving us a deeper look at this extraordinary period in our common heritage, particularly King’s College London and the Omohundro Institute. Oliver Urquhart Irvine, the Librarian and Assistant Keeper of the Queen’s Archive, and his colleagues at Windsor Castle, were extraordinarily generous, accommodating, and good-humored. Not least, I was in Windsor for the Queen’s 90th birthday celebration. I told Oliver that the irony was not lost on me that I had interrupted my research on the Revolution to stand on a street curb with thousands of others to sing “Happy birthday, your Majesty.”
This post and others also appear on oursibling GPP site at the Omohundro Institute.