Divine Doctors and Dreadful Distempers: How Practicing Medicine Became a Respectable Profession by Christi Sumich (review)
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Reviewed by
Christi Sumich. Divine Doctors and Dreadful Distempers: How Practicing Medicine Became a Respectable Profession. Clio Medica: Perspectives in Medical Humanities, 91. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013. 312 pp. Ill. $95.00 (978–90-420–3688-8).

A wide range of healers promoted their procedures and cures in seventeenth-century England. Physicians differentiated themselves from the competition, in part, by their accreditations. Physicians possessed university degrees. But most patients in early modern England could not afford a physician’s fee. Others sought help from unlicensed or nonlearned healers who provided the same treatments as their elite counterparts. Why, then, would anyone choose to see a physician at all? This intriguing question guides Sumich’s research, and she answers it by exploring how physicians appropriated ideas about morality to fashion themselves as experts. By grounding their theories and treatments in providence and divine retribution, seventeenth-century physicians cultivated moral authority and accrued clientele in a crowded, competitive market.

The first half of the book addresses prevailing negative stereotypes of physicians as greedy and atheistic. Sumich addresses the ways physicians drew on moralizing language, particularly medical metaphors in religious sermons, to combat such views. Physicians also highlighted their university educations and used print to market themselves and their publications. The second half of the book examines how physicians viewed and treated plague and pox. These were widespread, terrifying diseases in early modern England, and they were also both deeply moralized. Many believed that God sent plague as a punishment for sin and that pox, the early modern term for venereal disease, was linked to illicit sexual behavior. Sumich argues that physicians responded to these diseases by focusing on both curing sick bodies and also reforming sinful behavior. [End Page 576]

Physicians tailored their treatment of pox to suit the needs of wealthy sufferers. They might, for instance, alter a diagnosis or concede to a patient’s demand for privacy. Here Sumich moves away from her central argument about religion and morality by claiming that physicians presented themselves as uniquely qualified to treat venereal disease. Rather than prescribing cure-alls, physicians stressed their expertise and customized their treatments to individual patients’ lifestyles and circumstances. She returns to the theme of morality by outlining the ways physicians highlighted associations between pox and sin. Doctors emphasized the role of prostitution in spreading venereal disease and promoted treatments that both targeted pox and the indecent behaviors presumed to cause infection. Physicians’ responses to plague reflect a similar emphasis on both physical and moral reform. By blaming the spread of plague on the urban poor, physicians helped develop England’s plague policy in the early 1600s while also boosting their own moral status. They were simultaneously treating plague victims and curbing vice.

Physicians, however, were not the only ones who looked to the poor to explain and moralize plague. Nor were they the only healers to highlight the connection between pox and illicit sexual behavior. To what extent were the theories and practices delineated in Divine Doctors unique to physicians? All kinds of healers, for instance, adapted prevailing ideas about sin and morality, particularly in response to stigmatizing diseases like pox. The notion that disease was providential and that physical and spiritual health were fundamentally linked—beliefs that Sum-ich returns to again and again to bolster her claims—were prevalent among lay healers and patients, in addition to physicians. Seventeenth-century clergymen who worked as part-time medical practitioners in their communities embraced this conflation of body and soul most explicitly of all.

This book examines a group of healers that historians of medicine know quite well. Pioneering scholarship in the past ten years has moved beyond such a focus to recover the work of female healers, the unlicensed, and the less well-to-do—the men and women whose lives and voices have been silenced in the historical record. Sumich cites surprisingly little of this scholarship and does not reference the valuable studies on early modern healing, religion, and illness published in the last five years. Divine Doctors takes a traditional approach to exploring early modern medical practice, but offers a no less important piece of that history.

Olivia Weisser
University of Massachusetts Boston...


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