Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Theodore de Mayerne: Prince of all doctors

Sir Theodore de Mayerne (1573–1655) was a prominent physician who attended on the kings of England and France, their queens, and countless distinguished personages coming from all parts of Europe. He had a large practice in Paris and in England. Between 1620 and 1630 he was at the height of his medical fame, and in a letter from Germany he was addressed as the Prince of all Doctors in Europe.

Educated in Basel, he studied philosophy in Heidelberg and medicine in the liberal atmosphere of Montpellier before becoming successful in Paris. Through Huguenot sponsorship and patronage he became one of the physicians of Henri IV. Like many of his co-religionists he adopted the philosophy of Paracelsus, bizarre in its theories but practical in espousing the use of drugs. He became particularly adept in treating venereal diseases, having among his patients the future Cardinal Richelieu who was suffering from gonorrhea.

But Mayerne’s methods of practice threatened and infuriated the medical establishment of Paris, the Galenical physicians. They had elevated themselves into a superior caste of philosophers who had studied the ancient authorities, in particular Galen, and looked down on surgeons and apothecaries as manual workers. They were also bitterly hostile to the heretic “chemical doctors”, who were not only their competitors but also mostly Huguenots. A bitter dispute ensued, abusive pamphlets were published by both sides, and Mayerne was even struck off the register of physicians allowed to practice or teach in Paris. But for a time he prevailed; and through his long life of 82 years he remained a “chemical doctor” and a supporter of the Huguenot (Calvinist, Protestant) cause in Europe.

In 1610 Henri IV was assassinated and the tide in France turned against the Huguenots. The Catholic party now became ascendant. As Mayerne’s brother was stabbed to death by a Catholic and he himself was being pressured to convert, he accepted the invitation of James I and moved to England. There he was immediately successful, becoming first physician to the King and his Queen. His practice soon became enormous. As a famous chemical doctor, his advice was sought not only on medical matters but also on cosmetics, face powders, dentifrices, deodorants, and perfumes. Thus for a lord in need of a hair pomade to counteract the bad odor originating from his diamond necklace, he prescribed a delicious smelling concoction of roses, coriander, musk, amber, and civet.

But not everything always went well for this foreign intruder, and there were several crises in which he would be unjustly blamed for outcomes he could not control. First was the case of his highly distinguished patient, Sir Robert Cecil, formerly Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer and Secretary of State, who at age of forty-nine developed dropsy, diarrhea, and splenic enlargement, perhaps liver cirrhosis, and failed to respond to Mayerne’s detailed regimen of a special diet, mild exercise, a daily ride on horseback, massage, and a list of composite medicines. Then the popular young Prince Wales developed a febrile illness, probably typhoid fever, was seen by some eight physicians, some agreeing, some disagreeing about what was to be done, but some eventually blaming Mayerne for having precipitated his death by giving a purge too soon and “dispersing the disease into all parts.”And then there was the mysterious death of his former patron, Sir Thomas Overbury, victim of a conspiracy that led to his being imprisoned in the Tower of London and possibly murdered by his enemies—apparently with corrosive sublimate enemas. Mayerne, it was maliciously suggested, may by his prescriptions have had a hand in causing his death.

Yet in all these cases Mayerne had his name cleared, and he prospered. In 1616 he was elected to the Royal College of Physicians and in 1624 was knighted by King James. His influence grew. In London, as in Paris, the physicians looked down on surgeons (incorporated with the barbers) and apothecaries (incorporated with the grocers) as menials. So it was through Mayerne’s efforts that the apothecaries received their own charter and monopoly, separating them from the grocers, who would no longer be allowed to sell drugs, pills, powders, oils, ointments, plasters, and syrups. Then he was also successful in separating the distillers from the grocers. In 1618 he helped draw up a pharmacopeia (Pharmacopoeia Londinensis), which he dedicated to King James and listed the drugs apothecaries could legally sell.

In 1630 Mayerne was asked to help contain a serious outbreak of the plague. In a thirty-eight page long document he advised constructing five permanent hospitals in London; controlling entry into the ports by requiring certificates of health; enforcing the control of vagabonds; driving unruly base people (particularly the Irish!) from London; pulling down newly erected slum buildings; cleaning drains; destroying all carrion; removing slaughter houses from the city; keeping prisons clean; inspecting butcheries and breweries; and shutting down alehouses. Earlier on he had helped publish a list of Sir Thomas Moffet’s Paracelsian remedies and also his great work on spiders—the latter less memorable, at least in nurseries, than his daughter’s encounter with that species.

He combined in his practice the Hippocratic attention to clinical details with the chemical and hermetic philosophy of Paracelsus. He charged high prices but no one complained. He died very rich. When seeing patients he would spend much time taking the history and paying attention to every detail, then write a philosophical essay in French or Latin followed by his diagnosis and his extensive therapeutic recommendations. He was the classical “iatrochemist.” Already on arriving in England he had advised the Queen to go to Bath and take the waters containing an abundance of sulphurous spirits. Later, with great success, he prescribed the “golden elixir of life” taken from the Hermetic antidotary of Oswald Gaebelkhover, physician to the Duke of Wurttemberg, followed by a full regimen of twelve courses of various medicines. For the King he concocted an elaborate distillation of a stag’s horn.

Mayerne’s repertoire of remedies, many used during the last illness of James I, included bleeding, enemas, emetics of metallic substances followed by restorative possets, laxative infusions; mineral diuretics in sweet broth; cream of tartar; diuretic pounders compounded of crabs eyes, fish heads, grasshoppers and millipedes; antimony fixed by spirit of nitre; iron powders for intestinal complaints; mineral waters from spas; an arthritic powder compounded of scrapings of human skulls, herbs, white wine, bezoars, and oil of scorpions; and the secret Saxon powder compounded of honey and organs of viper. But as the King hated eating human bodies, he allowed an ox’s head to be substituted.

Hand in hand with Mayerne’s belief in hermetic chemical medicine was his dedication to the Huguenot cause. During most of his life he was involved in the politics of the religious wars that convulsed Europe, particularly France. Several times King James sent him on diplomatic missions, often secret ones, to promote the Protestant cause. At one time he was sent to France but was peremptorily expelled, leading to several months of diplomatic rupture between England and France. Yet in 1622 he once again returns to Paris, actually becoming physician to Louis XIII. For a while in 1620 he moved to Switzerland and bought a chalet, assumed a noble title, and worked to defend Calvinist Geneva against France and the Prince of Savoy.

Mayerne’s political influence, but not his medical fame, declined after the ascent of Charles I. He was forbidden to leave England under the pretext of being needed, but probably because the King had lost interest in supporting Protestant causes in Europe. After the Huguenots were defeated, Mayerne’s interests changed. He became an entrepreneur, attempting to invest in lead and coal mines, oyster beds, and distilleries. He kept deer, grew medicinal plants, and invented a secret cordial that centuries later would be offered to Napoleon when he entered Geneva as a conqueror. He investigated methods of catching carp and of keeping wine from deteriorating. He compounded an ointment to be rubbed on boots to attract wolves and foxes, and worked on developing the elixir of life.

Fond of food and wine, he compiled a cookery book, published posthumously in 1658 as Archimagirus Anglo-Gallicus. He provided the Queen with cosmetics; his interests in chemistry led him to experiment with pigments and varnishes, jewelry, metalwork, sculpture, tapestry, waterproofing, and colored inks. He also became interested in painting, studying the works of Vasari, getting to know Van Dyke, Rubens, Orazio Gentileschi, and other famous artists. He had portraits of himself painted by Rubens (figure 1), Jean Petitot, and posthumously by Diodati of Geneva. Keeping a low profile during the English Civil War, he remained in London, continuing to practice until his death and even treating Oliver Cromwell. His attempts to establish a nobility dynasty on his estate in Switzerland came to naught, and he outlived all his sons.

Mayerne’s original family name was Turquet. He was born in Geneva one year after the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s night, his father having fled there from Lyon because his life was in danger. A devout Calvinist and author of a History of Spain, his father also remained all his life a supporter of the Huguenot cause. The family had originally immigrated from Italy to develop in the silk industry in Lyon. The plebeian name Turquet may originally have been a nickname given to a female relative who fancied Turkish-looking dresses; and the nobler sounding name of de Mayerne may have been adopted from the Magerno town in Lombardy from which the family originated.

Much of Mayerne’s continuing fame rests on his writings. He wrote exceedingly detailed clinical notes, many of which have survived, among others in twenty five volumes in the British Museum, providing a vivid picture of how medicine was practiced at the time, what patients complained of, and how they were treated. His pharmacopeia and his work on pigments have also survived, and paintings showing a distinguished corpulent man hang in the art galleries of Britain, Geneva, and even the United States. In 2003 a biography by the distinguished historian Hugh Trevor Roper was published posthumously after the author’s death. It constitutes the source for most of the material included in this essay (see Europe’s Physician, Yale University Press).

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 6, Issue 3 – Summer 2014

Summer 2015



One response

  1. Very interesting and well written… you do my ancestor proudly.

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