London’s Foundling Museum presents an exhibition titled The Generous Georgian: Dr Richard Mead to honor the nearly-forgotten Mead. Dr Mead (1673-1754) was an eminent physician, a keen art collector and a staunch supporter of the Foundling Hospital.
Ironically, for all Mead’s good work he is not as well-known to us now as other contemporary physician/collectors such as Dr Hans Sloane (1660-1753), whose comprehensive collections formed the core of the British Museum, which Sloane founded in 1753.
The Foundling Museum’s exhibition hopes to re-establish Mead’s fine reputation.
Dr Richard Mead: A Kind, Caring and Compassionate Man
As a medical practitioner, Mead was a kind, caring and compassionate man. His prestigious practice treated clients such as Sir Isaac Newton and Alexander Pope, as well as the royal family. But he also gave his time and advice freely to patients who could not afford his services.
He was just as generous in his support and encouragement of young artists, many of whom, including the Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsay (1713-1784), owe their success to Dr Mead’s encouragement and patronage.
Would you like to see more articles like this?
Support This Expert’s Articles, This Category of Articles, or the Site in General Here.
Just put your preference in the “I Would Like to Support” Box after you Click to Donate Below:
As an avid patron of the arts, Mead was one of England’s most active art collectors. He chose judiciously, preferring quality to bulk, acquiring a wide variety of works, including drawings such as Antonio Maria Zanetti’s Study of a relief decorated with a Hermaphrodite as well as paintings, sculptures and coins ranging from classical times to the eighteenth century.
He also collected books, and in 1720 asked architect James Gibbs to design a library/gallery at the end of the garden of his house in Great Ormond Street.
The gallery would house his massive collection of some ten thousand books as well as some of his art works. Visitors were always welcome. One biographer referred to Mead’s collection as a “Temple of Nature and Repository of Time.”
Dr Richard Mead was most generous in his support of the Foundling Hospital, firstly being involved in the long campaign that led to its establishment, and then in garnering support from artists, musicians and London’s wealthy community, to provide a home for many hundreds of children abandoned on London’s streets.
Mead Saved Hundreds of Children from Smallpox
Dr Mead wrote prolifically on preventative medicine and how to treat plague, smallpox, measles, scurvy and other endemic diseases. Dr Mead was a keen advocate of inoculation and of the 247 children inoculated at the Foundling Hospital, by 1756, only one had actually died from the disease.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Edward Jenner developed a vaccination against the disease, but in earlier decades, inoculation was the preferred method of treatment. Inoculation (also called variolation) involved scratching the patient’s skin and rubbing fluid from pustules onto the scratch, or blowing powdered smallpox scabs up the patient’s nose.
The immune cells in the nose and skin attacked the virus before it got into the bloodstream. Although localised pustules would develop, these eventually disappeared after about two to four weeks. Patients were then immune to the disease, but still infectious and a danger to others until they recovered. The death rate for people inoculated was about 2%.
Edward Jenner developed his vaccine about forty years after Mead’s death, basing his research on the knowledge that milkmaids who caught cowpox, which was not a fatal disease, were immune to smallpox. First trialled in 1796, it was highly successful. Vaccinated patients could not infect others with smallpox and it was a safer method of immunisation.
Curator Stephanie Chapman
Decoded Past had the opportunity to speak with Stephanie Chapman, curator for the Foundling Museum, about Dr Mead.
Decoded Past: “Can you tell me more about Richard Mead, what sort of childhood did he have?”
Stephanie Chapman: “He came from a well-educated family. His father was a non-conformist minister who was actually banned from England and went to Holland. He was educated privately and then went to school and then he attended universities in Utrecht and Leiden, Holland. So he had a very comprehensive education… it was probably a quite liberal education.
“His final degree was in medicine, so he actually graduated from the University of Padua. He’d gone travelling. I think this is the key part in Richard Mead’s life. He studies medicine at Leiden, and then with a couple of friends and his brother, he goes travelling, doing what I suppose is the equivalent of the Grand Tour.
“I think that really fuelled his love of antiquities, of collecting objects. But also, obviously, he was there studying medicine and he finally gained that degree in Padua, so it sort of made him the collector and the physician.”
Decoded Past: “Did Mead come from an art-loving family?”
Stephanie Chapman: “I don’t really know about his father, but Richard was culturally educated we have to presume he came from a reasonably wealthy background.”
Decoded Past: “So can you tell me more about the Foundling Hospital?”
Stephanie Chapman: “It was founded in 1739 by Royal Charter, presented by George It, but It was the result of seventeen years of campaigning by Captain Thomas Coram. Coram was a relentless campaigner when he saw an injustice that wasn’t being addressed.
“He saw children being abandoned on the streets of London… he thought this as an horrific cruelty but also a waste of life that could be turned into useful citizens, and Dr Mead joined his campaign. He was a great friend and supporter of Coram, and he was one of the two speakers, Coram being the other one, who spoke at Somerset House in November 1739, at the formal presentation of the Royal Charter to the Foundling Hospital.
“That established the institution which was based at Hatton Garden for a short time, before it moved to this area here. There were purpose-built premises that were built over a series of years.”
Decoded Past: “Why were so many other great Georgians inspired to get involved with the Foundling Hospital?”
Stephanie Chapman: “I think part of it was due to compassion. Coram’s trump card really came when he started appealing to the ladies. Once they started to sign the petition and once ladies of a suitable standing in society had seen their contemporaries sign the petition, they were more likely to put their name down.
“Once the hospital opened many artists and musicians were involved here with William Hogarth spearheading a campaign to get artists to donate work here. It was really the first public art gallery, so there is this wonderful combination that the fashionable could come and listen to Handel’s music… they could see contemporary art works, and they could also donate money to support this wonderful cause. So I think that helped inspire people. Certainly, key influential people, and Dr. Mead was one of them, helped to spread the word and to encourage their contemporaries to join forces to support the institute.”
Highlights of the Exhibition
The Generous Georgian features items from Dr Mead’s collection including paintings, sculptures and drawings, letters, prescriptions, manuscripts and correspondence, as well as several books including Mead’s Mechanical Account of Poisons (1702) which contains several notes about snake venom which he apparently drank as part of his research into the action of such poisons.
A ‘Gold-headed Cane’ Physician
One very important exhibit, a golden-headed cane with a fascinating story, gives a valuable insight into Dr Mead’s attitude to life.
The cane’s handle carries the names of its six physician owners: John Radcliffe, Richard Mead, Anthony Askew, William Pitcairn, Matthew Baillie and William Macmichael.
Mead inherited the cane from John Radcliffe (1652-1714); Radcliffe’s name graces a hospital and a library in Oxford.
The inscription on the cane tells us that Mead’s ‘kindness of heart never deserted him’ and his hospitality was ‘unbounded.’
In 1827, William Macmichael published an ‘autobiography’ of the cane, celebrating its eminent owners.
The phrase, ‘a gold-headed cane physician,’ dates to this time, and suggests a physician of high standing.
Mead’s Beautiful Antiquities: The Arundel Head
Fascinated by classical times, Mead collected items such as the Arundel Head which dates from the 2nd century BC. Historians think it represents either the ancient Greek dramatist, Sophocles, or a Macedonian king.
In Mead’s time, many thought the head depicted the epic poet Homer. One of greatest highlights of Mead’s collection, it takes its name from another former owner and great collector, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (1585-1646).
Dr Richard Mead’s Legacy
Dr Richard Mead deserves remembering for his generosity, philanthropy, art collecting and medicine. Beyond improvements in public health, his greatest achievement is his contribution to the establishment and life-long support of the Foundling Hospital. The institution is now known as Coram and the vital work, started so long ago, still continues.
The Generous Georgian: Dr Richard Mead is on show until 4th January 2014. The Foundling Museum offers tickets and further information.