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
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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.”

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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.

Object of the month: Cheselden the pioneer

William Cheselden giving an anatomical demonstration to six spectators in the anatomy-theatre of the Barber-Surgeons' Company, London. Wellcome Images

William Cheselden giving an anatomical demonstration to six spectators in the anatomy-theatre of the Barber-Surgeons' Company, London. Wellcome Images

William Birnie investigates the story of a surgeon who sought to elevate the status of his profession…

William Cheselden (1688-1752) is remembered as the only eminent surgeon of the first half of the eighteenth century. This picture depicts him giving an anatomical demonstration in the anatomy-theatre of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company, which he joined in 1710 after completing his apprenticeship.

The Barber-Surgeons’ Company had been formed under Henry VIII in 1540 after the Fellowship of Surgeons was united with the Company of Barbers. For us today this may seem an odd thing to do, however, back then, it was fairly understandable as during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the degree of surgical intervention was limited.

In Cheselden’s time, surgeons trained through an apprenticeship during which, they would attend private anatomy lessons. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of bodies for anatomical purposes where those of criminals condemned by the courts. The Barber-Surgeons’ Company kept scrupulous control over the use of bodies dissected in their hall, with the macabre ritual of often later displaying the dissected bodies of executed criminals in niches around the walls. Cheselden himself was fined by the Company in 1714 for carrying out dissections without permission, which drew away audience members from regular lectures at the Company. With students having little opportunity to take part in dissections themselves, teachers would rely on models or anatomical preparations for class.

At just twenty-three years of age, Cheselden drew up a detailed syllabus of a course of lectures on anatomy that he would deliver three times a year. Cheselden was an extremely good anatomist and draughtsman, and it was his aim to publish an atlas of the body that was both artistic and accurate. At this time there was no small suitable manual of anatomy in English, and so, in 1713, Cheselden published his lectures, illustrated with twenty-six plates as The Anatomy of the Humane Body.

He insisted on the importance of medical students having meticulous knowledge of anatomy, and on practical dissection as the basis of this knowledge. The Anatomy of the Humane Body was a handy manual for the student, and complemented his practical dissections. It contained everything a student of medicine and surgery needed to know and, more importantly, was readable, with Cheselden himself commenting: ‘truth, brevity, and plainness of description being all I aim at.’ This book remained popular among medical students for over a century, with the title page bearing the intriguing quotation: ‘of all God’s work that do this world adorn, there is not one more fair and excellent than is man’s body both for power and form’.

He joined the staff of St. Thomas’s in 1718, and during the 17 years that he stayed there, Cheselden became the best known surgeon in Great Britain. His book published in 1733, titled Osteographia or the Anatomy of the Bones, offered specimens that he, as England’s top surgeon and anatomist, judged to be the most representative cases. In order to capture these innovative and beautiful images, he used a camera obscura, the first time this had been attempted for medical imagery. The outlines were sketched first, with assistants later reworking the drawings and adding detail. Interestingly, the first page of this book shows a self-portrait sketch of Cheselden drawing with the aid of the camera obscura.

By the 1720s there were calls from a few London surgeons to separate the Barber-Surgeons’ Company, in order to reflect the professional ambitions of the surgeons more accurately. There was an important distinction to make between the two; surgeons would perform trephining, drilling into the skull to lift depressed fractures, and lithotomy, cutting for bladder stones. Interestingly, Cheselden was capable of removing bladder stones in under a minute. Barbers would perform bleeding, tooth extraction and minor surgery. Another reason given for the dissolution of the Company was to allow greater freedom for anatomical training, with Cheselden aiming to free the surgeons from what he felt to be annoying restrictions put upon them by the regulations of the Company. He felt that surgeons, as a professional body, could not develop while tied to the barbers. The century in which he lived saw the development of an erudite underpinning for surgical practice through teaching and publications. Writing four years after the split, he said the rulers of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company had prevented the spread of knowledge about anatomy and ‘the improvements in anatomy since their restraints have been removed will sufficiently convince the world of the unfitness of them.’ This all coincided at a time when charitable hospitals were allowing surgeons to build a greater social status by working for them, albeit unpaid, with the additional benefit of allowing surgeons to build private practices among wealthier patrons.

This campaign for separation, led by Cheselden and his surgeon friend John Ranby (1703-1773), resulted in the split of the Company and the formation of the Company of Surgeons, in 1745. This would later become the Royal College of Surgeons of England which is still in existence today. It is interesting to note that Ranby had been surgeon to the Royal Household, and having attended to George II, held much influence with him. This new company could stage dissections at a new theatre located at the Old Bailey, next to Newgate Prison, where prisoners’ bodies would be bought straight from the gallows. The late 1740s saw surgeons openly advertising anatomical classes in ‘practical anatomy’, adding to a wide range of medical lectures already available in London.

William Cheselden was a true pioneer, he saw the need for scientific surgical education, and actively promoted publications and the methodical teaching of pre-clinical sciences. The first surgeon of his age and among the chief agents in separating the surgeons from the barbers, with a view to better training for surgeons, Cheselden deserves to be remembered for his superb skill and far seeing views on medical education.

William Birnie is a Visitor Service Assistant at Wellcome Collection. You can contact him at W.Birnie@wellcome.ac.uk.