On the whole, the countryside saw very little of doctors. Malew had no physician in 1665 though so close to the Manx capital, and spokesmen for Arbory in that year declared, “Concerning the practice of physic or chirurgery (surgery) or midwives we know nothing, for it was never usual among us…”.
Ballaugh, however, had a doctor in 1687, his wife being brought before the Ecclesiastical courts for failing to go to church. A Doctor Abraham Silk appeared in Jurby in the first decade of the 18th century. He answered to the description of: ‘A wandering fellow who went up and down the countries and had no resting place.’
Silk acquired fame for his inebriation rather than for cures. His habit of falling over unfortunate patients he was called in to see, and his frequent inability to keep on his horse’s back without assistance, soon brought him under the censures of the Church. A wordy combat with a dissatisfied patient whom he encountered on the highroad in Lezayre, when both men cursed one another with extraordinary vigour and fluency, once more attracted the attention of the authorities, and after his trial he disappeared from the Island.
Silk was the contemporary of two other doctors – Laurie and Calcott. Laurie, a Scotsman, caused a great sensation in Castletown in 1714 by hinting at the possession of necromantic powers. He said he would sacrifice a black cock, and then make the moon stand still. At the beginning of the 18th century very few of the clergy or their people could accept such a threat with indifference, and Laurie was hurried off to the Bishop’s dungeon in Peel where he was not likely to get a bird suitable for his purposes.
Doctor Patrick Christian, a Ramsey physician who was born in 1691 and reached the age of 89 – perhaps by avoiding his own remedies – has left at least one prescription behind him. Written in latin, it falls into two parts. The first mentions roots of sarsaparilla, ginger and raspberry; green willow, St John’s Wort (in Manx ‘lus y chiolg’) and juniper berries. In the second, among other things, are powders made of red coral, crab shell and millepedes. His patient died and the Doctor’s failure drew upon him the reproaches, merrited or not, of the relatives.
“The famous and ingenious Doctor, one Patrick Christian,” wrote the patient’s father, “an imperfect and pretended doctor of physick, who thinks neither a sin or shame to enter his claime for six pounds against your petitioner for service done to his son, which your petitioner had very good reason to wish he had let alone, and to have given him as much for doing the same…”.
Doctor Christian’s prescription of coral goes a long way back. Red coral, pulverised by fire and mixed with water was one of the chief magical draughts of the ancient Druids, and red coral amulets are still used in Italy as a protection against the Evil Eye.
To the Manx countryside people of the 17th and 18th centuries, periodically scourged by fevers and epidemics, there seemed little difference in result between the medicinal herbs of Patrick with his coral and millipedes and the medicinal herbs and incantations of the charmers.
The Manx may have thought the white witches with their claim to supernatural powers might be the more effective though and Bishop Wilson in 1712 and later, thundered against the sin and the use of charms but with little success.
(source Manannan’s Isle by David Craine (1955); artwork is by Andrei Shishkin ‘Medical History’)