- Roy Porter, professor of the history of medicinea
- a Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London NW1 2BE
Jokes, Freud taught us, are the acceptable face of aggression. Humour has, not surprisingly, provided a way for the people to fight back against the powerful; and, on account of their own highminded aspirations, the liberal and learned professions traditionally laid themselves particularly open to lampoon. Anti-priest and anti-doctor satire was not only a form of revenge, it was also designed to deflate, exposing pretension and humbug.
Medical satire was particularly near the bone since its humour was black. Laughter was a way of keeping the dread of death at bay—of handling the insidious suspicion that the medical profession might not after all be fighting death but could prove a double agent.
Such themes became specially prominent from the 18th century with the spread of fairly cheap prints and engravings alongside traditional verbal expressions like proverbs, riddles, and rhymes. Hogarth's commercial talents led the way from the 1730s. The decades around 1800 brought the golden age of the cartoon with Rowlandson, Gillray, and the Cruikshank family. The verbal and the visual joined forces to produce maximum impact in an age notably uninhibited in its depiction of sex and violence in political prints and professional satire alike.
The standing of early modern medics was precarious and it is not hard to see why. Disease and death still held sway. Faced with hordes of waterborne, airborne, and bugborne fevers, medicine had little power to cure the sick or save the dying. Doctors had to do their feeble best in a cut-throat trade, exposed to non-stop vilification. “If the world knew the villainy and knavery (beside ignorance) of the physicians and apothecaries,” the gossipy antiquarian John Aubrey was told by a doctor, “the people would throw stones at 'em as they walked in the streets.” Scepticism ran high: “God heals and the Doctors …