Here is a rather gruesome tale of eighteenth-century medicine making a problem worse. Beversham Filmer was a younger brother of Sir Edward Filmer, 3rd baronet, of East Sutton in Kent. He was a barrister and is described in The Baronetage of England as ‘one of the most able conveyancers this kingdom has produced’. In 1750 he consulted Mr Webb, a London surgeon, about ‘a small swelling upon the buttock’. The story is told in letters to Sir Edward from Beversham and from Christopher Hargrave, his servant.
From Bev. Filmer to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 6 1750
… I have consulted Mr Webb the surgeon about my swelling and as soon he saw it he said there matter in it & advised to have opened and as it lay deep he first laid a little caustic to deaden the flesh and then made an incision & lett out a tea cup full of blood & corrupition I am in more pain to day then when the operation was performed you will see by my writing that my hand shakes so I fear you cannot red it therefore I must conclude from your most affec brother & your humble servant
From Chris. Hargrave to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 9 1750
My Master has just now been fav’d with yours, & is concern’d that his illness has made you & the Family so uneasy, he has been in great pain since he wrote to you, but I think is rather easier, tho’ yet the part that was cut is very painful when ever he stirs, and is oblig’d either to sit on a cushion, with a great hole cut thro’ it, or lye on a couch, the greatest part of the day, but the surgeon assures him, that he is in a fair way of doing well, tho’ it will be some time before he can go about…
From Chris. Hargrave to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 11 1750
Mr Webb the Surgeon, has assur’d my Master to day, that the part that was cut, is in as fine a way, as he could possibly expect, and that the pain will be less every day, & that the matter will soon thicken, which I shall be very glad of, for my Master was in great pain all yesterday, & is in a good deal now, tho’ I think his Spirits are something better, & if Mr Webb had not found him so, he did design to have had a Physician to day, but now thinks there is no occasion, I hope by next Saturday’s Post, to send you an account of my Master being easier, for till the Pain ceases, & the discharges lessen, he can’t have much comfort from the assurances which Mr Webb gives him, tho’ I really believe he speaks as he thinks, & has assur’d me of the same, when my Master was not present, tho’ he owns that he did not expect him to feel much Pain, & attributes it to some bad habit of the body, for the discharges have been so large, that it supris’d Mr Webb very much & I hope neither you, nor any of the Family will be too much alarm’d at what I have wrote, & you may depend on it, that I won’t deceive you, in the accounts that I send, by making my Master’s case better, than I really apprehend it to be…
Copy of letter from Mr Webb, Oct 13 1750
In compliance with your request, I send you this account of Mr Filmer’s case, who has been so unfortunate to have two complaints unhappily complicated, the first external (and the only apparent one) was a small swelling upon the buttock, which was so situated & of such a kind, as cou’d furnish no occasion for fear, but since that was open’d, a large collection of matter has formed very deep under the great muscles of the thigh, & made it self a passage into the opening that was made to discharge the contents of the little swelling & as the discharge of matter for these two days past is in great abundance & the seat of the mischief very deep, I cannot say that I am without apprehensions, that the case will prove tedious & troublesome. I have therefore desir’d Mr Filmer that some other person of character may be consulted, & Mr Sharpe is the gentleman appointed, who is to meet me to morrow morning.
From Chris. Hargrave to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 13 1750
As my Master’s pain, has continued as great as ever, I desir’d Mr Webb wd let me know how his case is, that I might acquaint you with it, & this afternoon he wrote to me, & the above is a copy of his letter, I was in hopes to have been able to have sent you a more favourable account, & shall be glad if I can do it by Monday’s Post, please not to take any notice of this letter, nor Mr Webb’s, when you write to my Master, unless he grows better, for fear of affecting his Spirits too much, for the great pain he has endur’d, has made him very low spirited, & indeed wd have done so, by any person…
PS Mr Webb in the morning said, that the matter, “was good matter”
From Chris. Hargrave to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 15 1750
Yesterday morning before the Surgeons came, my Master found the pain very much lessen’d, & he had continued easier ever since, & can now rise from his chair without pain, which is a happy change – Mr Sharp was here yesterday, & is to meet Mr Webb here again next Wednesday, as they both now very well understand the case, they seem to think that the shall make an entire cure, without cutting again, tho’ they can’t determine that till next Wednesday, Mr Webb said to day, that every thing appear’d better, than he cou’d have expected, I will write again next Wednesday…
Copy of letter from Mr Webb, Oct 17 1750
This day Mr Filmer being inform’d by Mr Sharp & my self, how very improbable it was, that he shd be cur’d without suffering the diseas’d parts to be laid open, submitted to the necessary operation, & behav’d under it with great resolution, tho’ it was severe enough I hope I may now say, that he is in a very said way to be made well, tho’ it must be a work of time, because the wound is very large, we being oblig’d to follow the disease, wch had spread its mischief far and wide
From Chris. Hargrave to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 17 1750
The above is a copy of Mr Webb’s letter to me this day, wch I am very sensible will make both you & all the family uneasy, & indeed this has been a terrible day, & what I have all along dredded wd be the consequence, but as they have now cut as deep & as wide, as they have occasion, Mr Webb assures me, that there’s no danger of cutting again, Mr Sharp perform’d the operation, & is to be here again to morrow with Mr Webb, soon after the surgeons were gone, my Master was fav’d with your letter, & notwithstanding the fatigue & pain he had undergone, he was chearful when I read it to him… He is now dozing, & I hope to morrow will be much easier, I never thought that he cou’d have gone thro’ such a violent operation, without fainting away…
From Chris. Hargrave to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 18 1750
My Master has lain pretty easy ever since I wrote last night, nor has he been feverish to day, Mr Webb & Mr Sharp was here this morning, but defer’d undoing the bandage till to morrow, when they both will be here again, they both now assures me, that there’s no danger, of any more of these violent operations, wch are terrible to think on, more especially to feel, nor cou’d I have resolution to see either of ’em perform’d
My Master desires his compliments to you & all the family, is sorry that his illness has made you all so uneasy… he has been wholly govern’d by his surgeons in every thing, & I hope that next Saturday, either Mr F Filmer [Sir Edward’s son] or I, shall be able to send you an account of his being much better, at present he’s oblig’d to keep constantly in bed, which is tiresome to him, but as it’s necessary he submits to it…
From Bev. Filmer to Sir Edward Filmer, Nov 10 1750
… I thank God I am a good deal better than I have been but very weak so that I can but just make a shift to take a turn or 2 in the square in the middle of the day which I think does me good I have now been confined 6 weeks & doubt it will be a good while yet before the wound is quite healed Mr Webb dresses it every day but Mr Sharp has not been here since Sunday & then he would not take any money but said he came only as a visitor he examined the wound with his probe & said every thing went on as well as he could wish so I suppose he has taken his leave…
From Bev. Filmer to Sir Edward Filmer, Jan 17 1750
… I am able now to walk upon plain ground very well, but in going up & down stairs I cannot move my right thigh with that freedom I used to do, the muscles being I believe contracted for the flesh is not near grown up even with the other…
As a postscript, we know from jottings in Sir Edward’s medical recipe book that he was prone to problems with his uvula, the lobe that dangles down from the rear of the soft palate. In June 1755 Beversham writes to Lady Filmer:
I am very sorry to hear my brother has been so very much out of order with the same complaint he was troubled with last winter but am in great hopes the discharges the Docter has made by Physick Cupping & blistering will relieve him I sent this morning to young Mr Webb the surgion who assures me there is not the least danger in cutting the uvula…
Whether ‘young Mr Webb’ was the original surgeon or his son, not surprisingly there is no indication that Sir Edward took his brother up on his suggestion.
Source: U120 C29, Filmer Manuscripts, Kent History Centre.