Gout and Its Famous Georgian Era Sufferers

Gout is a form of acute inflammatory arthritis that is recurrent and most frequently affects the big toe, which is then known as podagra. Originally thought to be a disease “caused by a humor that flowed drop by drop, guttatim, into the joints,”[1] gout is now known to be caused by high levels of uric acid in the blood that crystallize in the joints, tendons, or surrounding tissues, resulting in severe pain. Historically, gout was called “the disease of kings” or “rich man’s disease” as it tended to be more common among the elite and well-to-do.

Gout in Its Podagra Form by James Gillray, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Gout in its podagra form by James Gillray. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

At one point gout was also thought to be caused solely by diet. Over the years, doctors have discovered there are other causes. Some of these causes include age, genetic predisposition, metabolic syndrome, and under excretion of the salts of uric acid. To help this situation, consumption of coffee, vitamin C, and dairy products, along with exercise, can often alleviate symptoms. Additionally, drinking tart cherry juice helps many people by reducing inflammation and making attacks less frequent.

One historian noted, “it is impossible to assign a date beyond which gout was unknown.”[2] Apparently Hippocrates described the disease. The Egyptians were known to have “liberal vinous potations, with all the accessories that are provocative of arthritis.”[3] Later, people such Oliver Cromwell, the English military and political leader, as well as the famous author of Paradise Lost, John Milton, suffered from gout. But there were numerous other famous sufferers in the Georgian Era.

One well-known Georgian Era gout sufferer was Dr. Samuel Johnson, renown for his way with words and for his authoritative dictionary. He began suffering with gout later in life. In 1783, he wrote of his difficulties to a friend, stating, “the Gout has treated me with more severity than any former time, it however never climbed higher than my ankles.”[4] A small descriptive passage about the malady is also attributed to him: “Unhappy, whom to beds of pain, Arthritick tyranny consigns.”[5]

Dr. Samuel Johnson, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Dr. Samuel Johnson, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, would never have described gout as a friend because he suffered so severely from it. He was famously known for it having affected him while young and still in school. His gout attacks grew increasingly worse over the years. Eventually his gout attacks were excruciating enough they “frequently and seriously interfered with his parliamentary and official duties.”[6] Because his gout was so severe, one writer noted:

“[H]is contemporaries, friends and foes, all believed that Mr. Pitt and his hereditary enemy understood each other, and that a convenient fit of the gout was always ready, upon adequate occasion — either to excuse his absence, or to enhance the merit and effect of his attendance, upon particular questions.”[7]

William Pitt. 1st Earl of Chatham. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Some people also alleged he feigned the illness to escape responsibilities of his office. Yet, others noted that his gout was so troublesome strong remedies were given to him in the hopes that he might see improvement. Instead they reported gout spread throughout his body:

“‘Hence,’ says Lord Mahon, ‘arose the dismal and complete eclipse which for upwards of a year his mental powers suffered. There was no morbid illusion of the fancy but there was utter prostration of the intellect.'”[8]

One of America’s Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, who served as the French ambassador and lived in Passy near the unfortunate Princesse de Lamballe, was another gout sufferer. He wrote a lengthy dialogue between himself and the vicious disease. He asked, “Eh! Oh! Eh! What have I done to merit these cruel sufferings?”[9] Gout retorted it was due to wrong foods, wrong drink, and wrong choices. Franklin promised if gout would leave he would “take exercise daily, and live temperately.”[10] But, of course, gout could not be so easily fooled.

“I know you too well. You promise fair; but, a few months of good  health, you will return to your old habits; … I leave you with an assurance of visiting you again … for my object is your good, and you are sensible now, that I am your real friend.”[11]

Benjamin Franklin. Author’s collection.

Although John Wesley was a famous Anglican divine and theologian, his spiritual leanings did not deliver him from the evils of gout. This resulted in him not merely writing about it but also taking active action. He maintained that sufferers should not regard “them who say the gout ought not to be cured,”[12] and he offered several remedies to soothe it. For sufferers of gout in the hand, he suggested applying a raw lean beef steak every twelve hours, and for gout in other limbs, his solution was to “rub the part with warm treacle, and then bind on a flannel smeared therewith.”[13]

John Wesley, Courtesy of Wikipedia

John Wesley. Courtesy of Wikipedia,

The Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1732 to 1792 was Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford, but referred to as Lord North. He was also a victim of gout. His attacks were of the podagra variety and severe enough that he eventually purchased “large gouty shoes” to reduce the uncomfortable pain. One time when he felt a gout attack coming on, he sent his servant John to get his gouty shoes. Despite John searching all the usual spots, the shoes could not be located. Unhappily John notified Lord North that the shoes had been stolen and then mightily cursed the wretched thief. Lord North seeming to be very grave about the loss remarked, “Poh … how can you be so ill-natured John? Now all the harm I wish the poor rogue is, that my shoes may fit him.“[14]

References:

  • [1] Stedman, Thomas Lathrop, Twentieth Century Practice, 1895, p. 331.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 332.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Johnson, Samuel, The Letters of Samuel Johnson with Mrs. Thrale’s Genuine Letters to Him, Vol. 3, 1952, p. 92. 
  • [5] Boswell, James, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., 1889, p. 132.
  • [6] Timbs, John, Anecdote Lives of William Pit, Earl of Chatham, and Edmund Burke, 1880, p. 114.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 115-116.
  • [9] Franklin, Benjamin, The Complete Works of Benjamin Franklin, 1806, p. 499.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 506.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Wesley, John, Rev. John Wesley’s Valuable Primitive Remedies, 1880, p. 75.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] George III, 1821, p. 368.

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