The phenomenal Dr Price

This portrait of William Price may seem out of place in our gallery, surprising visitors with its bizarre imagery. His fascinating story, one of medicine, religion and pushing boundaries, is even more unexpected. Sarah Bentley tells all.

V0018010 William Price of Llantrisant (1800-1893) MRCS, LSA, medical

William Price of Llantrisant (1800-1893). Oil painting by A C Hemming, 1918.

He looks down on all but the tallest visitor to our Medicine Man gallery, austere expression at odds with his flamboyant dress. A string of accolades and accusations usually follow the name William Price of Llantrisant: physician; eccentric; radical; Welsh hero; Archdruid; inexorable litigant; Chartist; costumier; pioneer of cremation. We don’t know quite so much about the two dappled goats at his feet.

The setting is South Wales, in the uplands familiar to me from childhood: sheep-cropped tussocky grass; flowers of gorse, rock rose and foxglove; the ruined grey tower of one of the Marcher castles that sweep this flank of Wales.

The artist A C Hemming was most likely commissioned by Henry Wellcome to depict this scene. If unable to ‘collect’ a significant historical moment in the form of an object, Wellcome would instead procure a picture of it. The flaming torch represents Price’s druidic kit, but it’s also a nod to the moment when the population of Llantrisant came out of chapel one winter’s evening in 1884 and saw William Price in full regalia on the hill above, setting light to a pyre containing the dead body of his infant son Iesu Grist, Druidic messiah.

This event, with its far-reaching consequences, has overshadowed everything in Dr Price’s life, but there are other stories to be told before we get to it.

Medical training

Scarificator with six lancets used for blood-letting in the 19th century.

William Price’s father left Oxford a sane man and was set to become a parish priest in Glamorgan when he developed what is usually described as a ‘psychotic illness’. Eccentric behaviour – wandering naked, bathing fully dressed, pocketing adders – was accompanied by violent rages that his wife, Mary Edmunds, had to cope with. She had been a servant and their match had alienated her struggling family from the comfortable Price gentry; there was little help from them as William grew into an exceptionally bright young man with an interest in medicine.

He was fortunate to be apprenticed for five years, aged thirteen, to a local young and talented surgeon, Evan Edwards. After a year at London hospitals, William became one of the youngest ever Members of the London College of Surgeons in 1821.

Skilled surgical techniques, as practiced by Edwards, formed a significant part of nineteenth century medicine, but Joseph Lister’s developments in antiseptic surgery were some forty years away and contemporary accounts of operations carried out without anaesthesia chill us today. Medicine in general was still dominated by the Four Humours and treatments aimed to achieve their balance, such as purging or blood-letting.

The future looked promising for a highly skilled physician returning home, yet, sixteen years later, William is on the run with a price on his head, in exile in Paris.

The progressive Dr Price

Price was scathing of many of his fellow physicians, referring to them as peddlers of poison. Voltaire’s epigram “the art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease” comes to mind. His horror of smoking and meat-eating would have seemed as amusing to patients then as his theories about the ill effects of sock-wearing and the benefits of naked rambles.

The Glamorgan he returned to was changing: its growing Industries largely owned by English ironmasters; its workers in overcrowded and insanitary living conditions.

Price became physician to the Brown Lenox Chainworks and instituted a system whereby workers paid him a small regular fee when well and were treated ‘for free’ when sick: a prototype medical aid society. A later example, the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, became famous when Aneurin Bevan, introducing his 1948 legislation that established the NHS, said “All I am doing is extending to the entire population of Britain the benefits we had in Tredegar for a generation or more. We are going to ‘Tredegar-ise’ you.”

William Price at Y Maen Chwyf. Colour lithograph by Newman & Co, 1861.

William Price at Y Maen Chwyf. Colour lithograph by Newman & Co, 1861.

It seemed natural that Price, with his radical views and the trust of working men, would become a local Chartist leader, campaigning for the extension of the franchise.

Dean Powell describes how Price held meetings about the people’s charter at Y Maen Chwyf, a significant stone formation in Pontypridd: where Iolo Morganwg had organised a Gorsedd (convention of Druidic bards) many solstices ago.

Price didn’t trust the local Chartist leaders enough to take part in the 1839 March on Newport, but when the rebellion failed he was implicated and fled the country, £100 on his head.

In exile in Paris, Price would have an epiphany. 

Enter the Druids

Greek and Roman accounts of Druids are somewhat contradictory and vague, frequently portraying them as frightening and barbarous. So it is surprising that, from the late seventeenth century, they start to be portrayed as wise, cuddly, nature-loving figures.

Ronald Hutton has described how growing nationalist sentiments of the period, together with revived interest in the classics by humanist scholars, piqued interest in the mysterious Druids. Wales, its language and sense of identity on the wane, needed Druids.

“The druids; or the conversion of the Britons to Christianity”. Engraving by S.F. Ravenet, 1752.

Just as John Aubrey, out hunting one winter’s day in 1648, had ‘seen’ as if for the first time the massive stones surrounding the village of Avebury and came to ‘read’ them as sacred druidic sites, self-proclaimed bard Iolo Morganwg believed he could decode lost knowledge about the Druids from medieval Welsh verse. Unfortunately, some forgery and quite a lot of laudanum were involved in Iolo’s method.

We don’t know exactly what the exiled Price saw at the Louvre that led to his epiphany, but he described it as a stone containing an ancient Welsh script that only he could decipher; its message was, in part, that he would father a Druidic messiah.

Left: Image from Bernard de Montfaucon’s L’Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures, 1719. Right: William Price in the costume inspired by it, on stage in 1884.

Left: Image from Bernard de Montfaucon’s L’Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures, 1719. Right: William Price in the costume inspired by it, on stage in 1884.

Dean Powell speculates that the stone might have been part of a temporary exhibition and notes that Price set great store by an engraving depicted above. This image is an Abraxas stone, a Gnostic amulet. Note its influence on the bardic ‘onesie’ William Price designed!

End times

In the 1880s, we find a still vigorous Price living in Llantrisant with local woman Gwenllian Llewellyn, some sixty years his junior. When she gives birth to a son, they name him Iesu Grist (Jesus Christ). The child is sickly, however, and dies at five months old. So we find Price high in his goat field one winter’s night in 1884, lighting a pyre. The intervention of horrified villagers and local constabulary prevents the child’s cremation and leads to Price’s arrest.

Price was fortunate to come before a judge sympathetic to the aims of the The Cremation Society of Great Britain. This was set up in 1874 to campaign for the legalisation of cremation, a practice the Church objected to on a number of grounds, not least because of how cremated bodies would fare at the Resurrection. Price would echo some of the Society’s arguments in his defence:

“It is not right that a carcass should be allowed to rot and decompose in this way. It results in a wastage of good land, pollution of the earth, water and air, and is a constant danger to all living things.”


Chapel and crematoria at St Johns, Surrey, 1889.

Price was found not guilty and the verdict set a precedent. A crematorium at St John’s in Surrey, built in the 1870s but never used, was able to open, followed by the passing of the Cremation Act of 1902. Price himself was cremated in 1893. National Cremation Statistics show that in 1960 34% chose cremation over burial; by 2013 the figure was 75%.

In 1966, Price’s daughter, Penelopen, sister to a second and surviving Iesu Grist, unveiled stained glass windows in Glyntaff crematorium chapel near Llantrisant. The image of Christ’s resurrection was conventional, but “…to one side…was a pane containing a peacock, a creature whose flesh was, according to ancient myth, incorruptible. On the other was a phoenix, the legendary bird that rose again from its own ashes. The windows were a bid to make sense in coloured glass of the Church’s teachings about death, teachings in need of a new metaphor now that cremation was, for many, the gateway to resurrection and eternal life.” (from Carl Watkins’ The Undiscovered Country: journeys among the dead)

Sarah Bentley is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Henry Wellcome’s Anatomical Venus

Back in September, we held The Thing Is…Morbid Anatomy at Wellcome Collection. The object under discussion was revealed to be one that blurs the contemporary distinctions between art and science, medicine and religion: the Anatomical Venus. Joanna Ebenstein tells us more about these wax wonders.

The Anatomical Venus has long been the central object of my artistic and scholarly affection. Life-sized, uncannily life-like and dissectible into dozens of anatomically correct wax parts, it – or better, she – was created to teach human anatomy to a general public without need for actual human dissection, which was messy, ethically fraught and subject to quick decay.

Continue reading

Object of the month: Protection against Lilith

Lilith amulet, Medicine Man

Lilith amulet, Medicine Man

As part of our curious journey, Medicine Man will be closing on 21 July, to return in spring 2014. Before we begin packing things away, Charlie Morgan takes a look at the history and meaning of one particular amulet in the collection.

Most people know the Abrahamic story of creation quite well. God made Adam out of dust and Eve from one of his ribs. She would later succumb to the temptations of a snake, eat from the forbidden tree, and damn humanity to a life of toil and sin.

Except that’s not the only story.

If you delve into Jewish tradition and mysticism there emerges a woman prior to Eve, and things start to get a lot more complicated. This woman was Lilith, the first wife of Adam, and in our Medicine Man gallery you’ll find the 18th-century ‘Amulet to Protect against Lilith’, which was made to guard children from her demon.

The story of Lilith first came together somewhere in the 8th to 10th century CE in a selection of satirical proverbs entitled The Alphabet of Ben Sirach. It’s been messed about with since but broadly follows the same story. Like Adam, Lilith was created from dust, but their relationship was turbulent from the start because Lilith considered herself equal to Adam. He thought differently and tried to assert his dominance when they had sex, by insisting she lie beneath him. Lilith was outraged at this suggestion and refused to do as she was instructed. Blaspheming, she turned into a demon and flew out of the Garden of Eden. At the request of Adam, God sent three angels – Senoy, Sansenoy and Samlegot – to retrieve Lilith and they found her at the Red Sea giving birth to a host of demonic offspring. The angels threatened to slaughter her children but she retorted: she was created only to harm the young and would kill any descendants of Adam. Eventually a compromise was met whereby one hundred of Lilith’s children would perish each day but she would be powerless to touch any children protected by the names of those three angels. You can see their names written in Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic text on Henry Wellcome’s amulet.

The story of Lilith and her threat to unborn or newborn children gained special traction in the Jewish communities of medieval Europe, not least because it built upon pre-existing mythology of similarly named demons. The influence of Babylonian ideas had begun long before the start of the Common Era and specifically Jews had begun to speak of ‘Lilins’ or ‘Liliths’ – types of demons explicitly borrowed from Mesopotamia. One such example of this was in the use of incantation bowls. These were cylindrical structures that were buried underground and branded with the names of various creatures of the occult, the idea being that they would catch the monsters before they could do any damage. Considering how popular these bowls were, it is entirely possible that the story of Lilith as the first wife of Adam was created as an attempt to give religious legitimacy to this and similar practices. If this was the idea, it was extremely successful, and the result was an essential ‘boom’ in protective charms.

Amulets like the one in Medicine Man would have been worn around the necks of pregnant women or hung in the four corners of rooms where newborn babies slept. Other sources indicate that the text was written upon bedchamber walls; the ink would have been mixed with holy incense and written by a respected religious figure. These traditions continued for quite some time: the amulet in Medicine Man, for example, dates from the 18th century.

As with all forms of faith healing, it is quite easy to look at the tradition of Lilith amulets and dismiss it as mere superstition. In many ways it is, but as with similar amulets in various other cultures, they are best understood as a way of making sense of the unexplainable. Eighteenth-century Europeans would not have had any understanding of what we now call sudden infant death syndrome, or ‘cot death’, and so the idea that young children were being slain by a vengeful demon could have made sense. In another example of Lilith being used to explain confusing biology, when the idea crossed over into Christianity, monks would sleep with crucifixes across their genitalia to prevent Lilith from taking their semen and using it to bear children. However, unlike these fearful monks, we now know that they were probably having unconscious emissions, or ‘wet dreams’.

If the story of Lilith was on one hand a way to legitimise pre-existing superstitions, on the other it was also a tool to justify existing social roles. Lilith turned into a feared demon because she rebelled against Adam, and it is impossible to see the re-telling of this tale outside of the context of gendered relationships. If Lilith turned evil when she refused to submit to her husband’s rule, did it not then follow that the same fate awaited all women who did the same?

For centuries, Lilith cropped up in art and literature as the archetypal rebellious woman. Although her character changed over time, one thing that stayed the same was her hair, which is always described as long, unkempt and messy. This is significant because of the way that hair has long been tied to the history of gender roles and representations of women.

By the Middle Ages hair covering had become an accepted practice for married Jewish women, not least because it was also commonplace in Christian and Muslim communities. Maimonides, a definitive source on Jewish law, wrote on the importance of married women hiding their hair, and more radical scholars such as Moses Sofer even suggested shaving the hair of married women. In Eruvin 100 of the Babylonian Talmud, a series of rabbis discuss the curses inflicted upon Chavah, the Hebrew name for Eve, and hence the rest of womankind. One of these is that “her head is covered like a mourner” and that “a married woman is ashamed to go outside with her head uncovered”. Hair in this context, and specifically long hair, was seen as both shameful and sexual, and for Lilith to be depicted as uncovered and untamed was for her to embrace both of these sins. Any woman that acted in the same way would have been equally suspect.

In the 19th century Lilith is reinvented as a type of siren, who is beautiful and enchanting but who makes use of her beauty to lure men to danger. This duality can be seen in Goethe’s Faust Part 1, from 1808:

Adam’s wife, his first. Beware of her.
Her beauty’s one boast is her dangerous hair.
When Lilith winds it tight around young men
She doesn’t soon let go of them again.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lilith

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lilith

Yet it is Rossetti’s 1863 painting Lady Lilith and its accompanying sonnet that really epitomises Lilith’s new emergence as a cultural symbol of a dangerous temptress. Rossetti depicts Lilith alongside white roses and poppies, both signs of death and sterility, all the while absent-mindedly combing her long red hair. In an accompanying sonnet, Rossetti clearly borrows from Goethe, and Lilith is described as “The witch he loved before the gift of Eve” whose “enchanted hair was the first gold”. Notably, the sonnet ends with the following lines:

Lo! As that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent
And round his heart one strangling golden hair.

Despite placing added emphasis on her enchanting nature, Goethe and Rossetti were in many ways merely following in the footsteps of the previous tellers of the Lilith tale. For all of them there was an implicit danger in Lilith’s sexuality and a fear that the same desires were latent in all women and could emerge if female behaviour was left unchecked.

In the late 20th century a whole new interpretation of Lilith arrived: a feminist reclamation. Most famously, the singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan organised Lilith Fair between 1997 and 1999, an all-female series of concerts that took place across the USA and raised more than $10 million for women’s charities. Twenty years before MacLachlan’s fair came Lilith magazine, a Jewish feminist publication that took its namesake as a source of strength and inspiration and is still publishing today. In the first issue, Aviva Cantor took a sledgehammer to centuries of anti-Lilith sentiment, and explained the editors’ choice of using her name for their title:

“Her strength of character and commitment of self is inspiring…Lilith is a powerful female. She radiates strength, assertiveness; she refuses to cooperate in her own victimization. According to feminist readers Lilith is a role model for sexual and personal independence.”

I doubt Jesus ben Sirach – author of The Alphabet – would have been impressed.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.