Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The spirit of millipedes

Three centuries ago to the day, a physician named David Hamilton was treating Queen Anne for gout. He reported in his diary that she was taking spirit of millipedes for the condition, and was feeling much better. Hamilton, who was particularly known in London for his midwifery skills, was also a friend of Mary Cowper, a diarist of some note.

Hamilton was born in 1663 in Lanarkshire, the tenth and youngest son of James Hamilton of Boggs, the first Laird of Boggs and Dalzell, by his third wife. He studied at University of Leyden and the College of Physicians in London. He married in 1689 and again in 1694, fathering two sons with his second wife. He is said to have had a flourishing medical practice, largely because of his skills in midwifery. Indeed, it is possible that he was first brought to the notice of Queen Anne when asked to see if she were pregnant, though there seems to be no evidence that he ever attended her in childbirth - since the last of her many stillborn children predated Hamilton’s appointment.

In 1703, Hamilton was knighted and elected a Fellow of the College of Physicians. The same year he was also appointed Third Physician-in ordinary to Queen Anne but did not attend her until 1708. By 1712, he had been appointed Second Physician-in ordinary. Two years later he was appointed physician to the Princess of Wales, but was not summoned for either of her pregnancies (one was a stillborn child, and the other child died in infancy). There is not much information about David Hamilton online, all the above comes from a lengthy introduction in The Diary of Sir David Hamilton, edited by Philip Roberts and published in 1975 by Clarendon Press.

Hamilton attended the Queen often in the last five years of her life, and so his diary provides not only details of her medical state, but records her ideas and opinions, her relationships with friends, ministers and foes, and gives a good impression of the mood of the times. A short review of the book, found on Pub Med Central, says it provides ‘a valuable account’ of events towards the end of Queen Anne’s reign and gives ‘an excellent portrait of the queen’.

The review, however, is more critical of the book’s (or the diary’s) medical content. It notes that Hamilton is especially exercised over Anne’s gout and discusses the contemporary ideas of etiology and therapy, but complains that ‘the index carries only one reference to any medical treatment of the Queen’ (which, as it happens is to Tipping’s water for urinary lithiasis, and this concerns the Duchess of Marlborough, not the Queen!).

Indeed, Hamilton writes in his diary about the Queen’s gout on one of his first visits. Here is an extract from his diary concerning 9 December 1709, exactly 300 years ago today.

‘I’ll begin therefore with an uneasiness which her Majesty appeared to have, about the beginning of December 1709. The particular occasion I was not made acquainted with. But the seeing her inwardly affected, gave me an opportunity to Caution her against disquiets, and as her Phisitian, suggest the Ill consequences that might happen at that time from it. Her receiving this advice with so much Goodness, (I may say Thankfullness) convinc’d me how right my conjecture was. But visiting her the 9th. of that Month I was farther confirm’d therein, for entering the Back stairs I found my Lord Godolphin, then Lord High Treasurer, waiting till her Majesty came out of her Closet, and upon my comming in, he came to inquire for the Queens health (the first time of his doing so, and indeed his great gravity, passing with me as a forbidding Countenance, gave me no inclination to Converse with him). I answerd‚ ‘that her Majesty was better of the Gout that it had been more regular than usual, that she took nothing but spirit of Millepedes, and that since the use of it she had taken few medecines than before’; to which he Replyd the oftner the boards are wash’d, the sooner they are impair’d. Upon this Freedom of Conversation I told his Lordship that it was in his Power to prolong his Majestys life, by laying before her as few disquieting things as possible, but if there was an absolute necessity for it, to shun it at least at some certain seasons. Which he with wonderfull good nature, and seeming pleasure undertook, adding, that if I would send him a line to inform him of every such season, he would do his utmost to keep her easy.

After his returning from the Queen, and my going in, I told her Majesty what had pass’d which She received exceeding kindly; thank’d me, and desir’d me to go on, and do according as he had appointed, only not to trouble too often least he should think it came from her.’

Philip Roberts, the editor of Hamilton’s diary, provides a note about the ‘spirit of millipedes’ taken from The Essays of Sir William Temple published by Blackie in 1910. This book is freely available online at Internet Archive, and here is what Temple says about the medical benefits of millipedes: ‘The next specific I esteem to be that little insect called millepedes: the powder whereof, made up into little balls with fresh butter, I never knew fail of curing any sore throat: it must lie at the root of the tongue, and melt down at leisure upon going to bed. I have been assured that Doctor Mayerne used it as a certain cure for all cancers in the breast; and should be very tedious if I should tell here, how much the use of it has been extolled by several within my knowledge, upon the admirable effects for the eyes, the scurvy, and the gout; but there needs no more to value it, than what the ancient physicians affirm of it in those three words: Digerit, Aperit, Abstergit. It digests. It opens. It cleanses.’

Finally, it is worth noting that Hamilton’s diary itself has not survived into the modern day, but only a copy made by his friend Mary, Countess Cowper, who herself was a diarist of note - see The Diary Junction. This copy is kept with the Panshanger Manuscripts at the Hertfordshire Records Office, along with a faithful copy of that copy by Mary’s daughter Sarah. In her diary, Cowper mentions Hamilton, and specifically that the stillborn child of the Princess of Wales would have ‘infallibly been alive if she had been laid by Sir D. H.’

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