Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2016: In the Literature

Thomas Dover: doctor, privateer, and rescuer of Robinson Crusoe

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: (Published 14 December 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i6516
  1. Jangu Banatvala, emeritus professor of clinical virology
  1. King’s College, London (St Thomas’s Campus)
  1. jangu{at}

Jangu Banatvala recounts the remarkable adventures of Thomas Dover

Dover’s Powder was introduced in the 19th century as a treatment for febrile illnesses and other ailments. The originator of the powder, Thomas Dover, was a man of many parts—doctor, privateer, rescuer of Alexander Selkirk (the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe), fashionable London physician, popular medical author for the general public, and self publicist.

Dover’s Powder

My father, a London GP, used to prescribe Dover’s Powder for me when I had various mild childhood febrile illnesses. This was probably common practice before and during the second world war. The preparation was a mixture of ipecacuanha, powdered opium, and lactose. It was available in Britain until the 1960s and in India until as recently as 1994. In many ways Dover’s Powder was an ideal preparation, its opium content having analgesic and soporific properties and a small dose of ipecacuanha having expectorant properties. However, opioid derivatives came to be considered unsuitable for minor illnesses, particularly for children. Dover’s Powder was used extensively during the American civil war, by Italian troops in the western desert, and during the second world war by the navy, in the coxswain’s box of medicines that was supplied to destroyers and smaller ships.1

Dover’s early years

Dover took his first degrees (bachelor of arts and then master of arts) in Oxford and then went to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, possibly because of the distinction of the master of the college, Robert Brady, who was regius professor of physic and a friend of Thomas Sydenham’s, a doctor who practised in Pall Mall. Sydenham was regarded as the English Hippocrates because of his ability to accurately …

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