“Each Wednesday evening Mrs Hunter welcomed the brightest talents of the Georgian cultural world through the graceful doorway of number 28 and up the marble staircase to the first floor salon overlooking the square, where they recited, danced and gossiped into the early hours.”
This quote, taken from Wendy Moore’s fantastic biography of surgeon John Hunter, The Knife Man, conjures up the typical image of the Georgian doctor as affluent, living in luxury and moving in the best society. However, Hunter’s Leicester Square property, where patients could gaze at Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress and AHarlot’s Progress whilst waiting to consult the famous surgeon, was far from the norm, something that its lessee was very much aware of.
John Hunter was one of a number of prominent members of the Society for Relief of Widows and Orphans of Medical Men, founded in 1788. Originally called the Benevolent Medical Society of London, the Society was founded by Dr John Squire and Mr William Chamberlaine, a surgeon recently arrived in London from Jamaica. Both men were concerned that other professions had benevolent societies their members could turn to in times of hardship, but this was not the case for doctors, at least in the Metropolis.
Squire was inspired by the recent establishment of the Benevolent Medical Society of the County of Norfolk and the City of Norwich, and the Benevolent Medical Society of Essex and Hertfordshire, and wrote to both Societies asking for copies of their rules.
Initially, Squire and Chamberlaine’s Society failed to attract much attention – there were only the two of them at their first meeting, although they had both vowed to bring as many people as they could interest in their idea. Gradually, however, numbers increased, and there were 70 people at the first official meeting of the newly renamed Society for Widows and Orphans of Medical Men in November 1788.
Applications for relief were made by letter to the General Court of the Society, with the Court of Directors having discretionary powers to grant relief up to the sum of 10 guineas in cases of “manifest and urgent distress.”
The first application for relief was received on the 25 September 1793, and came from a Mrs Weedall, who had three small children to support. The General Court recommended that she should receive £15 a year, and that an additional £5 should be paid to each of her children annually. This was not the last the Society heard from the Weedall family.
In 1795 Mrs Weedall died and a Richard Jones petitioned the Society on behalf of her children. In particular he asked for money to pay for the education of the youngest child, who was at boarding school in Staffordshire. The Court awarded a half yearly grant of £15 for this purpose. Unfortunately, it was later discovered that Jones spent the money on himself and not the Weedall children…
The misfortunes of the Weedall children, and many others in their position, are recorded in the archives of the Society for Relief of Widows and Orphans of Medical Men, newly catalogued and now available at the Wellcome Library as SA/SRW.
The archive contains constitutional, administrative, financial and membership details, as well as manuscripts and publications relating to the history of the Society. Of particular interest are the minute books, recording the meetings where applications were discussed (SA/SRW/B), and the registers of successful applications (SA/SRW/D/1-2).
Returning finally to John Hunter, when he died in October 1793 it was discovered that he had left his family huge debts. His house and effects were sold, servants dismissed, and his wife was even forced to seek employment as a ladies companion.
John Hunter’s motives for joining the Society for Relief of Widows and Orphans of Medical Men may have been to help those less fortunate than himself, but events after his death proved that even the families of the most famous medical men could find themselves in need of aid.
Author: Natalie Walters is an archivist at the Wellcome Library.