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The Life of a Doctor's Wife

The life of a doctor’s wife in the 1830s in Scotland was not always straightforward.


Even in Hippolyta’s level of society (not grand, but quite genteel), wives were expected to take some interest in their husband’s business and to assist him in promoting it within the female orbit – domestically and socially. Many doctors ended up marrying the daughters of the physician to whom they were apprenticed, or with whom they were in partnership – those daughters would be well-versed in life in a doctor’s household. For Hippolyta, a lawyer’s daughter, much of her new life was unfamiliar, but for an intelligent woman with a sensible husband there was plenty of interest to be learned.


Doctors, of course, were private practitioners. Like any tradesman, they served an apprenticeship before trying to set up in a practice of their own, preferably in a place where they had some social contact but where there were not too many other doctors, or where one or two local doctors were growing older. Setting up a practice was not a matter simply of putting up a brass plaque and waiting for customers to appear: Dr. George Barclay, who appears in the Murray book A Deficit of Bones, was a real person and wrote to his fiancée about his own efforts to build a practice in 1815 Aberdeen (the quotations are from With Advantage and Pleasure by N.J. Mills): it was a matter of building on acquaintances, making friends, socialising and networking as intensely as one could manage.

‘I hope this drudgery of feasting and spreading acquaintance will be of use to me in days to come. I have too much of it to be agreeable at present.’

The length of a doctor’s education varied: some surgeons, for example, never went to university but served an apprenticeship, while some simply felt they might have a knack for it. Others went to university at least for a few years (the proportion of students who even stayed in a Scottish university for what we would now consider the usual four years was very low). 

‘Only the wealthiest [medical students in Edinburgh] could afford to pay the £500 or so necessary for three years of study leading to graduation; the majority attended … for only one year, cramming in as much anatomy, chemistry, and pathology, as they could.’ (Lisa Rosner, The Most Beautiful Man in Existence)

They would start with an A.M. or M.A. at St. Andrews, Glasgow, or one of the two universities in Aberdeen (Patrick Napier, like George, went to Marischal College, Aberdeen), while serving an apprenticeship at the same time, then perhaps go on to study medicine in more detail in Edinburgh. George Barclay then went, unusually, to study surgery in London. 

Students who could afford it could also pay a sum to visit a local hospital, following the resident physicians around and examining the patients. Between this, university fees and payments for an apprenticeship, a medical education was very expensive. George Barclay’s brother commented,

‘Medicine is an expensive education, but the greater difficulty follows, what to do after, how to make a living by it, the supply always being greater than the demand – unless by going abroad.’

Like George, Patrick met his wife in Edinburgh and brought her to the town where he had begun to set up his practice. Most would not dream of approaching the father of a respectable young lady to ask for her hand until he had some reasonable prospects of a good business, but for those gentlemen and tradesmen who lived near universities like Edinburgh, there was the clear prospect of one’s daughter being wooed by a medical student and taken to the other end of the country. 

In general, doctors like Patrick Napier went to patients’ homes, rather than have the patients come to them. Nevertheless, his wife would often be expected, in a small practice, to act as receptionist and message-bearer, and be prepared to be disturbed at any time of the day and night by patients and their friends knocking at the door asking for help. There was less demand for confidentiality from doctors – no Data Protection Act – but a doctor’s wife would be expected at least to be discreet and respectful of his patients. She would equally expect to seat them at her own dinner table, and to be able to converse with them in a manner fitting the upper half of society, complementing the gentlemanly manner expected of the doctor himself. Nevertheless, in Georgian times ladies were not expected to be the delicate flowers that Victorian history has perhaps led us to believe. George Barclay’s wife, Emme, heard all about his patients, first the draining of an abscess:

‘I have had a sair job this morning topping the wife in the Green. This is 33 Scotch pints altogether I have taken out of her.’

‘On Saturday I removed a tumour from the breast of a girl weighing 7lb 2 oz of beef weight. As it was of soft fatty nature you may guess the size. She fainted just as I finished the operation but soon revived and is doing well … It was one of the most butcher-like jobs I ever engaged in.’

Hippolyta grows to expect the same, despite her respectable upbringing as the daughter of a lawyer, and it would not be unusual for her to have to assist her husband at least occasionally – after all, women were still seen as responsible for their family’s health and it was often only after the housewife could not herself manage a case of illness or injury that the household budget was examined and a doctor was called in. Practice nurses were unheard of, though an understanding doctor (like Patrick) could work with the local ‘wise woman’, the one who attended childbed and deathbed and laid out corpses. 

Nevertheless, the scope of the doctor or the surgeon was limited. Setting of bones, removal of teeth and extraction of stones was all the average surgeon could do, and physicians specialised in draining of abcesses and recommending dietary changes or exercise for most illnesses.  Emetics, bleeding, blistering and purges were popular treatments, and some virtue is being found in them again today (maybe not blistering, though!). Amputations relied on quick and confident action. Tumours were dicey things, but could sometimes be dealt with successfully, usually when they were grown to an extreme size and physically impeded the patient’s activities. Doctors knew about the blood system and had stethoscopes, many could make up their own medicines, though quackery and patent medicines took their toll, too. The better doctors followed developments in their profession by ordering books from specialist bookdealers in Edinburgh or London, in a number of languages – for this purpose, George Barclay read Latin, French and Portuguese, and his wife Emme was equally well educated in languages. Hippolyta would have to live in a house full of drugs, odd specimens, and books (how awful!):

‘Our own business would employ a man’s whole life to read the best part of the works.’ 

But books were also expensive: Hippolyta is lucky that Patrick is happy for her to sell her paintings to help out – and that he has been wise enough to settle in an upcoming spa town, with a constant flow of patients. Nevertheless a doctor’s reputation was always on a knife edge, and in a small community any fall from grace inevitably affected the whole household.

‘I wish I had you here to enjoy some of my blue devils – a patient or two going wrong, an opinion too rashly given and matters of that kind keep me for days as low as a cat.’

But if he were reasonably successful both professionally and socially, a doctor and his wife would have a fine standing in the community – to the extent that for many years a doctor’s wife would be for example ‘Mrs. Dr. Napier’, indicating her status.

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