Europe’s Physician

by Nick

Europe’s Physician: the various life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne
by Hugh Trevor-Roper
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006

Here is a long overdue review of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s biography of Sir Theodore de Mayerne. I originally read this book over Christmas in a vain attempt to delay the process of essay writing, but it’s taken me a while to get round to writing about it.

The manuscript for the book was amongst various unfinished works found in Trevor-Roper’s papers when he died in 2003. Much of the research seems to have been carried out during the 1970s, with the bulk of the manuscript completed by 1979 – but then, other projects got in the way and Trevor-Roper never fully completed it. Blair Worden, Trevor-Roper’s literary executor, has been the mastermind behind its eventual publication – his editing (rightly) confined to chasing references and the occasional polishing of roughly drafted text.

Mayerne was born into a Huguenot family in Geneva – his father having fled France following the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. He studied first in Geneva then at Heidelberg and Montpellier, at the latter finding inspiration from Joseph du Chesne and building an interest in the new, heretical medical practices of Paracelsus. Trevor-Roper does a fine job of explaining and illuminating the battle between Galenic medicine and Paracelsian “chemical” medicine that was underway during Mayerne’s lifetime. Where Galen had argued that illness could be controlled by balancing the four humours within the body, Paracelsus and his followers argued that the universe and everything in it – including the human body – was chemically controlled, and could be adjusted through appropriate treatments.

After moving to Paris to set up practice, Mayerne continued his interest in Paracelsus but also managed to become one of Henri IV’s physicians. It was here that he developed the practice of keeping detailed case notes, something which has allowed historians to gain insight into the medical conditions of many contemporaries – Oliver Cromwell, for instance, sought treatment from Mayerne in 1628 and was described as “valde melancholicus”. At this time Mayerne also developed a political role, accompanying the Duc de Rohan on diplomatic missions. Trevor-Roper is excellent at bringing out Mayerne’s politics, particularly his commitment to the Huguenot cause. This is an aspect that is missing from other biographies that focus solely on Mayerne’s medical career. He was also later employed by James I for similar purposes of statecraft.

After Henri IV’s assassination in 1610, Mayerne was invited to England and became James I’s personal physician – and vet, too, for the royal horses (there was no distinction between the two roles at the time). He managed to ride out criticism of his treatment of Robert Cecil and Henry Prince of Wales – both of whom would die, despite his efforts. In Cecil’s case he was criticised for bleeding the patient by other doctors; in Henry’s case, the treatment was initially senna and rhubarb cordial, but when Henry’s typhoid fever did not respond to this, Mayerne’s desire to bleed him was vetoed by other doctors. Instead, his head was shaved and pigeons applied to it, and a cock was slit down the back and placed on his feet. Despite this, Henry went downhill and was dead by the next day. Mayerne was then caught up in the scandal surrounding the murder of Thomas Overbury, who died a horrible death, poisoned by Frances Howard and Robert Carr. Mayerned had been involved in Overbury’s treatment but managed to escape censure.

Mayerne was far-thinking in some of his ideas. During the plague of 1630, for example, he suggested a centralised office for public health, with royally-funded hospitals and trained doctors. He also saw which direction the wind was blowing in terms of monopolies – he applied for monopolies in lead-mining and in oyster-farming, although neither attempt was successful. Later in his career, he also developed an interest in art, applying his chemical interests to the science and technology of painting and pottery, and producing an influential history of the technique of oil painting.

In his later years, Mayerne kept a low profile during the civil wars and had his position as doctor to Henry and Elizabeth Stuart (Charles’s younger children, under Parliament’s care at St James’s) regularised by Parliament. He died on 22 March 1655, at the age of 82.

Trevor-Roper’s life is a fascinating account of the man, ranging equally from analysis of Mayerne’s role in high politics, through to his medical ideas, to interesting tidbits about arcane treatments or passing interests in non-medical issues. He has an eye for the funny detail – for example, the treatment of ointment of made of green lizards, applied to the feet, that he prescribed for the Duchess of Lennox. Some of the writing does jar slightly, though. The book was written in an age when literary tastes differed from today’s, and I found some of the language slightly overblown in places. There are also various points, particularly in Trevor-Roper’s account of European politics, where the historiography has significantly overtaken him. His summary of the English civil wars, for example, is very out of date. But this is to be expected in a book that was largely completed thirty years ago, and it does not take away from what an enjoyable read it is.