'Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be'
Samuel Pepys – diarist, civil servant, and Restoration man-about-town – was born in 1632 in a house on Salisbury Court, near St Bride’s Church. But it was also there that he experienced the tender mercies of early modern surgery. Like many of his contemporaries, Pepys ate too much red meat and drank too much port, and he suffered gout and bladder stones. The latter were exquisitely painful, but Pepys feared surgery so much that he put up with this terrible pain for two years, while he tried every other remedy he could find. But turpentine pills and lucky rabbits’ feet did no good, and on 26 March 1658 he called Thomas Hollyer, a surgeon from St Bartholomew’s Hospital, to attend him.
Hollyer gave Pepys a bottle of brandy to drink – partly to numb the pain, and partly to make him insensible and tractable. He tied Pepys to a table, naked and face-up, and inserted a long metal rod through his penis and into his bladder, to ‘sound’ and locate the stone. He then made a deep incision in Pepys’ perineum, and used a pair of pliers to remove the stone. This procedure could take upwards of half an hour. After the surgery, the wound was dressed, and Pepys was put to bed, with orders to stay as still as he could for seven weeks. The stone, he tells us, was the size of a real tennis ball, and he had it cleaned up and mounted in gold, to keep on his desk as a paperweight.
It’s easy to imagine that this was all in a day’s work for an early modern surgeon. But throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the day-to-day work of London’s surgeons was not heroic butchery, but rather ‘running repairs’ – blood-letting, tooth-pulling, dressing wounds and infections, and trussing ruptures. They certainly carried out a limited range of operations: cutting for stone, amputation, removing external growths, and some new procedures for cataracts or anal fistulas. But they performed nothing more invasive than this, and certainly no interventions in the chest or abdomen – except for last-ditch caesarean sections.
Every year, on the anniversary of his surgery, Pepys held what he called his ‘Stone Feast’, to celebrate his continued good health. On Saturday 26 March 1664 he wrote:
This being my solemn feast for my cutting of the stone, it being now, blessed be God! this day six years since the time; and I bless God I do in all respects find myself free from that disease or any signs of it, more than that upon the least cold I continue to have pain in making water, by gathering of wind and growing costive, till which be removed I am at no ease, but without that I am very well. One evil more I have, which is that upon the least squeeze almost my cods begin to swell and come to great pain, which is very strange and troublesome to me, though upon the speedy applying of a poultice it goes down again, and in two days I am well again. …
Ended the day with great content to think how it hath pleased the Lord in six years time to raise me from a condition of constant and dangerous and most painfull sicknesse and low condition and poverty to a state of constant health almost, great honour and plenty, for which the Lord God of heaven make me truly thankfull. My wife found her gowne come home laced, which is indeed very handsome, but will cost me a great deal of money, more than ever I intended, but it is but for once. So to the office and did business, and then home and to bed.