We asked Amanda Herbert—the inaugural Molina Fellow in the History of Medicine and the Allied Sciences at The Huntington and assistant professor of history at Christopher Newport University—to share with us some of her current research in the Library’s collection. For her 2015–16 fellowship project, titled “Spa: Faith, Public Health, and Science,” she seeks to reclaim the early modern urban spa as an important site for the study of the history of public health.
Before I arrived at The Huntington for my fellowship in August, I spent hours looking through the Library’s online catalog, drawing up lists of the manuscripts, rare books, and pamphlets I wanted to examine while here. The object I wanted to see first was this one: a personal diary, written in 1769, by a young stone carver who lived and worked in the spa city of Bath, England. His name was Thomas Parsons, and he lived from 1744 to 1813.
Recovering the experiences of the working women and men in spa cities is an important part of my project. They were the permanent residents who scrubbed spa pools, made and sold medicines, cared for the sick and injured, constructed buildings, and cleaned streets: in short, the people who made it possible for spa cities to function as sites of health and healing. Not all of them could read or write, and even when they did produce receipts, account books, or correspondence, the collectors of the past seldom preserved these records. That’s why The Huntington’s copy of Thomas Parsons’ journal is so interesting and special: it’s very rare to find evidence of 18th-century working people’s lives, especially written in their own words.
Lucky for me, Thomas Parsons had a lot to say. Every day for eight months in 1769, when he was 25 years old, Parsons scribbled a record of his thoughts, emotions, and activities. He discussed religion—Parsons’ father was a Baptist minister, and everyone in his family went to church regularly—and quoted biblical passages that he found inspiring. He mentioned political events, such as the Spitalfield Riots in London, sparked by silk weavers organizing to make a living wage during a downturn in their industry. Parsons wrote: “25th [February]…sad rioting at London last Wednesday beyond anything yet known of late years.” And he described his work as a stone carver: drawing schemas for potential clients, forming molds out of clay, and chipping away at the buttery-yellow Cotswold stone for which Bath is so famous. Parsons wrote on February 21 that he had “finish’d a figure of Bacchus,” and, on March 11, that he had worked on carvings of “7 Owls and hawks to day.” Most often, by the time he sat down with his diary at the end of a long day, he was too tired to describe his labors in detail: “23rd [February] Nothing but work all day long,” and, on April 15th, “workt yesterday and to day till late at night that’s all the remarks I can make!”One of the most interesting things about Parsons’ diary, however, is how it reflects the influences of science and medicine. Spa cities like Bath were centers of public health and healing: they provided free medical care to anyone who came to the city seeking a cure; they were home to hundreds of apothecaries, physicians, quack doctors, midwives, and herb sellers, all of whom flocked to spa cities in order to set up practices and shops; and they hosted dozens of print shops and publishers, where tracts and treatises describing the best ways to achieve mineral water cures were cranked out daily. Science and medicine were the lifeblood of these cities, and spa city residents—Thomas Parsons included—expressed their interests in these topics by concocting medicines, trading specimens, and conducting scientific experiments. Parsons liked to read books about natural philosophy in his spare time; on July 25, he wrote that he “workt all day save now and then peeping into [Thomas] Burnet’s Theory of the Earth,” a speculative book on the origin of the cosmos. On January 24, he wrote: “read part of Newton’s Optics—what a field is here open for entertainment! How rich, how fertile is Nature!” Parsons loved to do amateur science experiments. He was interested in the weather, remarking at the end of January that he “spent good part of the day in filling thermometers to a proper height and sealing them,” and in July he wrote of his excitement when one of his friends “brought me a Barometer.”
But the topics in which Parsons took the most interest were medicine and the provision of public health. He experimented with drinking sassafras tea (perhaps in the hopes that it would cure his constant toothaches—historically, sassafras was used as a dental anesthetic and disinfectant), and he tried to devote more time to “aquering knowledge sufficient in the medical art.” Parsons hoped that, in times of plague or pandemic, he might be able to act as an amateur doctor in “service to my poor neighbors,” for he believed that the provision of healthcare to the poor was “next to divinity…the most generally usefull of all arts.” Like many 17th- and 18th-century spa residents, Parsons believed firmly that helping the sick and injured was an essential part of being a good citizen as well as a good Christian.
Interested in learning more about Thomas Parsons? Art historian and Huntington reader Susan Sloman has published an article in The British Art Journal about Parsons’ artistic and cultural impact on carving, “An eighteenth-century stonecarver’s diary identified: Eight months in the life of Thomas Parson (1744-1813) of Bath.”
Amanda E. Herbert, assistant professor of history at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, is the inaugural Molina Fellow in the History of Medicine and the Allied Sciences at The Huntington. She is the author of the book Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship, available from Yale University Press.