Culture / History / Inspiration

Be worldly to be successful – A lesson from 18th century doctors

William Harvey, a doctor in the 17th century

Henry VIII is one of the most popular kings in medieval England. His reign was called the Tudor monarchy, which was succeeded by the Stuarts. All these occurred during the 16th to 17th century. Though his name is more popularly linked to his six wives* (more particularly, to Anne Boleyn), he was also known to have chartered the College of Physicians in 1518, which eventually led to the ‘royal’ tagging of doctors and physicians in 1551. 

During the era of the Tudors and the Stuarts, doctors were portrayed as sombre, serious scholars. Wearing gray or black clothing in portraits, these no-nonsense academicians inspired trust, and depicted the very image of wisdom and reliability.

William Hunter, a doctor in the 18th century

This impression changed radically in the 18th century with the transition to the Georgian monarchy. Also called the ‘Augustan era’ in English literature, this was the time for the metropolites. This was the era of Romantic poets like William Blake and Lord Byron. This was the era famously portrayed in romance novels by Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.

During this period, changes in the medical profession forced doctors to blend in into society. Most of the time, they created chaos. They were the root of societal jokes. The saying “All publicity is good publicity’ never rang so true. Besides getting involved in duels and debauchery, sex scandals and religious ones, doctors became a stickler for fashion.

… the doctor was also mocked for being a pretender to fashion, all got up in his curled and powdered wig, frock coat of satin or brocade, buckled shoes and tricorn hat, and carrying a gold-headed cane and sometimes a muff, to preserve his delicacy of touch.

– Roy Porter, “Prototypes of Practioners”, Bodies Politic, pp. 129-249

The whole point of this charade was to draw attention to themselves, and to be part of polite society (the ‘in’ crowd). Doctors realized that they have to move with the times. They have to combine science and arts with getting accepted in society to achieve professional success. This changed the mindset from thinking of doctors as lofty philosophers in the 17th century to doctors as gentlemen of the Ton, as worldly men in the 18th.

Don't Hate, Appreciate

Image by thaths via Flickr

Just like doctors in the 18th century, now in this globalized world, we all must be worldly to be successful people. We should not let our single-minded focus in earning money allow us to forget that we live in a society. We are a community. Strive for work-life balance. Do things with people. Go people-watching and spot trends. Get exposed to different things beyond your comfort zone. Learn history and your cultural roots. Develop a hearty appreciation for the arts, music, nature, etc… just about everything. Live now in the present.

By appreciating things beyond our horizon, we get inspired. Delve into your creative side. Don’t get stuck with a single piece of knowledge or skill. Think broad, talk broad, act broad. Be broad in everything. Except, in one situation:

Be broad-minded, but try not to be broad-physically. Difficult, I know, but let’s try. Try all the above, I mean.


*A guard in the Hampton Court Palace once indulged me (during my visit to London) on how English children are taught to memorise the names of the six wives of Henry VIII. The saying goes like this:

Divorced, Beheaded, Died,

Divorced, Beheaded, Lived.

Henry VIII divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. His next wife, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded. His third wife, Jane Seymour, died of childbirth complications. He divorced his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. His fifth wife, Catherine Howard was beheaded (for similar reasons as Anne). Finally, his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, outlived the king. How fun!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s