Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Dr. John Wall and Royal Worcester porcelain

JMS Pearce
Hull, England, United Kingdom


Figure 1. Dr. John Wall

At first thought, the making of pots, china and porcelain would seem remote from the practice of Medicine. But one notable, exceptional man was accomplished and original in both. The polymath, Dr John Wall (1708 – 1776) of Worcester, though far from deserting Medicine, could perhaps be considered an example of the ‘Truants. The story of some who deserted medicine yet triumphed‘: a title coined by my father’s late chief, Lord Moynihan (1865-1936), President of the Royal College of Surgeons, in his Linacre Lecture of May 1936.1

John Wall (Fig 1.) in about 1750 conducted experiments with an apothecary William Davis, at Davis’s shop in Broad Street, Worcester to devise a new method of making porcelain using soapstone. They were determined to emulate the ancient Chinese production of fine translucent porcelain, but the formula for mixing the clays was unknown. Using a primitive domestic oven they began to experiment. Founded in 1751 the factory’s origins were humble. With 13 local businessmen Wall and Davis advanced their discovery in “The Worcester Tonquin Manufactory” at Warmstry House. Eventually their recipe for soft porcelain would withstand boiling water: a discovery that led to the fame of the Wall’s porcelain.2 Similar to Bow and Chelsea china, the glaze was harder and thinner, with a blue underglaze.

The First Period of Royal Worcester (1751-76) is often called the Dr. Wall period. During this period, the factory used a formula for soft paste porcelain which was obtained when they took over the Quaker, Benjamin Lund’s Bristol Porcelain works in 1752. Lund’s factory used a secret formula which included Cornish soapstone, which contained hydrated magnesium silicate. Wall and Davis realized that this was the key to obtaining good translucency and durability. It was hand painted in blue underneath the glaze. In 1756 Robert Hancock joined the company and initiated the transferring of prints onto porcelain. A higher production was thereby obtained, while maintaining the quality. Three years later Worcester was making the best English blue and white tea wares that money could buy.

Worcester Porcelain, granted a royal warrant in 1788 by George III, is known as Royal Worcester and is widely collected and treasured.

Dr Wall, a clever chemist and an accomplished artist, by his scientific skill was successful in producing one of the most beautiful soft porcelains in Europe. The crescentic, true Worcester mark, was taken from one of the quarterings of the Warmstry arms.3

In 1783 Thomas Flight bought the factory for his sons Joseph and John and again changed the porcelain paste, achieving a better, whiter body, decorated in neoclassical style.4 This and many variant patterns proved highly desirable for many years. In 1914 Royal Worcester added to its decorative ware hard porcelain goods for hospitals and laboratories. In 1976 it merged with Spode and production was switched to factories in Stoke on Trent and abroad. Financial hardships after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to the company selling to the Portmeirion Pottery Group in 2009.

John Wall, in 1751 could not have dreamed of Royal Worcester’s continued success.


Medical contributions

Figure 2. Medical Tracts of Dr. John Wall

Collectors of porcelain remember John Wall as a porcelain maker.5 It is ironical that his medical contributionsalthough far from trivial are largely unrecognized by medical history. In his day he was well known as a skilled physician.7 He was born at Powick, Worcestershire, educated at King’s College Worcester, and proceeded to Worcester College, Oxford, graduating B.A. in 1730. He went on to Merton College, and was elected a Fellow in 1735. He read Medicine taking the M.A. and M.B. in 1736, and M.D. in 1759.8

He began to practise as a physician in Worcester in 1736, and married Catherine Sandys. They lived in a large Palladian house at 43 Foregate Street, Worcester. The historian Nash commented:

His practice as a Physician was particularly distinguished by benevolence, courtesy, penetration and success, but his benevolence displayed itself in its utmost extent in his unremitting attention to the poor.

Three quarters of Worcester’s population were said to be his patients. Sir Charles Hastings — founder of the British Medical Association, later bought his house.

In 1744, he wrote an essay, (Philosophical Transactions, No. 474, p. 213 cited8) on the use of musk in the treatment of the hiccup, of fevers, and in some other cases of spasm.

From the time of Thomas Sydenham, bark in moderate doses had proved effective in malaria and also used as a ‘general tonic.’ A Letter from J. Wall M.D. to Edward Wilmot M. D. F. R. S. and Physician to His Majesty commended the use of the Peruvian bark * in the small pox. (Phil. Trans No. 484, p. 583)

In the Gentleman’s Magazine (favoured by Samuel Johnson) for December 1751 Wall published an essay on the cure of putrid sore throat, in which, like John Fothergill’s An account of the sore throat attended with ulcers 1748, Wall clearly described but did not distinguish cases of scarlet fever and of diphtheria. He was the first medical writer to point out the resemblance of the condition in man to epidemic foot-and-mouth disease in cattle, a suggestion of importance.8

In 1756, he published a pamphlet, Experiments and Observations on the Malvern Waters. This reached a third edition in 1763, and was then enlarged; the Malvern spa became fashionable. Wall himself noted it was:

devoid of mineral spirit and of almost all other principles. The efficacy seems chiefly to arise from its great purity.

Figure 3. Blue plaque at 43
Foregate Street, Worcester

In spite of claims for numerous cures, the waters contained little mineral content. An anonymous wag wrote:

The Malvern water, says Doctor John Wall,
Is famed for containing just nothing at all

In agreement with an official report of Sir George Baker MD FRS, in a letter (London Med. Trans, i. 202), importantly he pointed to the noxious effects of lead in cider (‘Devon Colic’), one of the earliest accounts of plumbism.9

William Heberden (1710-1801) had described angina in 1772. 10 Wall published a letter to Heberden in 1775 adding to his description;5 it contained one of the first English reports of a post-mortem on a case, recording:

calcification of semilunar valves and ascending aorta, with increased curvature of the latter.6

Wall supported the bishop, Isaac Maddox, to establish an Infirmary at Worcester in 1745. (Fig 2.) He served as its first treasurer and was one of its four honorary physicians* until his death in Bath after a lingering illness in 1776.11 He left the hospital a legacy, later enhanced by his widow in 1797.

He had six children, two of whom became doctors. His son, Martin Wall MD, FRS (1747-1824), Lichfield Professor of Clinical Medicine at Oxford, collected his works into a volume entitled ‘Medical Tracts,’ (Fig 2.) published at Oxford in 1780.6 The preface mentions that ‘an unremitting attachment to the art of painting engaged almost every moment of his leisure hours,’ mainly on Classical and Allegorical subjects. He exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773 and 1774.8 He prepared designs for some of the stained glass windows in the Chapel of Oriel College, Oxford.

A sufferer from gout, he retired in 1774 to Bath and in June 1776 he died. A portrait by William Daniell is in the National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG D12221).

Worcester is indebted to Dr. John Wall for two of its most ancient and famous institutions, namely Royal Worcester Porcelain and the Worcester Royal Infirmary. A blue plaque (Fig 3.) commemorates his home at 43 Foregate Street.



*Peruvian or Jesuit bark came from cinchona trees and contained appreciable amounts of quinine alkaloid.
*The physicians were: Dr John Wall, Dr. Thomas Attwood, Dr James MacKenzie and Dr Thomas Cameron.

  1. Dunea G. Lord Moynihan and his Truants. Hektoen Int. Summer 2013 – Volume 5, Issue 3
  2. Royal Worcester Museum.  http://www.museumofroyalworcester.org/
  3. Browne EO, Burton JR “Short biographies of the worthies of Worcestershire.” 1916. https://archive.org/stream/shortbiographies00brow/shortbiographies00brow_djvu.txt
  4. Sandon Henry. The Illustrated Guide to Worcester Porcelain 1751–1793. Praeger, New York. 1969.
  5. Smith M. Caduceus, porcelain and palette: John Wall of Worcester J. Royal Society Of Medicine 1999;92:641-5.
  6. Wall J. Medical Tracts . Oxford, England, D Prince and J Cooke, 1780.
  7. Lindgren KM. Dr John Wall, A Profile in Porcelain, Painting, and Pectoral Pain. JAMA. 1979;242(10):1053-1055.
  8. Lane Joan. “Wall, John (1708-1776)”. In: Dictionary of National Biography. 59. London: Smith, Elder & Co.2008.  pp. 93–94. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/28525
  9. Pearce JMS. Burton’s line. Eur Neurol 2007;57:118-119
  10. Heberden, W. Some account of a disorder of the breast. Medical Transactions. The Royal College of Physicians of London 1772;2: 59-67.
  11. McMenemey WH. A history of the Worcester Royal Infirmary. Press Alliances; 1st ed. edition (1947)



JMS PEARCE, MD, FRCP, is emeritus consultant neurologist in the Department of Neurology at the Hull Royal Infirmary, England.


Summer 2018  |  Sections  |  Physicians of Note

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