Grin and bare it: buttock cupping & other health 'cures'


If you have ever hankered after living in a bygone age, then the prospect of getting ill prior to the advent of modern medicine should be enough to bring you to your senses.

The Wellcome Library - one of the world's leading collections of medical history - is making freely available more than 100,000 images, from ancient medical manuscripts to works by artists like Goya and Van Gogh.

They include an extensive selection of satirical etchings from the likes of James Gillray and George Cruikshank. These illustrate and poke fun at the misery of ill health, and the medical treatments then in vogue.

Simon Chaplin, head of the Wellcome Library, said: "Together the collection amounts to a dizzying visual record of centuries of human culture, and our attempts to understand our bodies, minds and health through art and observation."

Wellcome has made them available as part of its policy of open access to all.

Man with trousers down From a medical textbook "Exercitationes practicae" published in 1694 detailing "healing practices, observed and illustrated with pictures of a great number of individuals and their treatment"

This arresting image shows the practice of "cupping" - an ancient therapy where heated cups are placed on the skin. Practitioners claim it helps with a huge variety of ailments from muscle problems to cellulite. In 2004 Gwyneth Paltrow appeared at a film premiere revealing the signs of cupping therapy on her back.

Cholera patient Etching by Robert Cruikshank, showing a cholera patient experimenting with a variety of useless remedies, published 1832

Robert Cruikshank, like his brother George, was an illustrator and caricaturist. There was a cholera pandemic in London that year which killed more than 50,000 people in Britain. The popular belief was it was caused by "bad air". Nearly two decades later, the great public health physician John Snow proved that contaminated water was the culprit.

"punch cures the gout" Etching by James Gillray, published 1799, showing an obese gouty man drinking punch with two friends.

The huge increase in cases of gout give this caricature a contemporary relevance. Here the gouty man is drowning his sorrows with punch, together with a woman suffering from with colic (gallstones) and a second man with 'tisick, an archaic word for a cough. The treatment is unlikely to help with any of the ailments.

"Bumpology" Etching by George Cruikshank showing a phrenologist in his consulting room. Published in 1826.

The phrenologist has been identified as J De Ville, whose consulting rooms were in the Strand in London. Phrenology was a bizarre but popular pseudoscience based on measurements of the skull.

A scroll on the table says "Thurtell shown to be craniologically an excellent character. Readers at the time would have got the joke: John Thurtell was hanged in 1824 for a brutal murder - his body was sent to London for dissection and a waxwork of him exhibited at Madame Tussauds.

"Origin of the gout Etching by HW Bunbury of a man with gout, circa 1785

Gout is renowned as being one of the most painful medical conditions. Here a devil is getting to work on a retired naval officer's foot, which is swollen and heavily bandaged. But his red nose and the wine on the table suggest a more prosaic cause of his condition.

"A pinch of cephalic" Etching by George Cruikshank from a sketch by the late James Gillray, published 1822

Let's face it, none of the characters here looks a picture of health. This etching shows a man about to sneeze after taking snuff. The full title is "A cure for drowsiness, or, a pinch of cephalic". The caption may refer to snuff as a brain stimulant - cephalic means related to the head.

"The cholic" Etching by George Cruikshank, published 1819

Pity this poor woman suffering the pain of colic, or gallstones, illustrated by demons tugging on a rope round her stomach. NHS Choices describes the symptoms of gallstones as "sudden, severe abdominal pain that usually lasts one to five hours". These days patients can benefit from painkillers or keyhole surgery to remove the gallbladder.

"the head ache" Etching by George Cruikshank published 1835.

Ever had a headache like this? This is a companion piece to the woman suffering from colic. Think of it next time you reach for ibuprofen or paracetamol.

"the cow pock" Etching by James Gillray showing Edward Jenner inoculating patients against smallpox, published 1802

This wonderful caricature shows Edward Jenner at work in a hospital at St Pancras in London. It reflects the initial fear and scepticism of many at the prospect of being inoculated with cowpox in order to protect against the much more serious disease of smallpox. The people being treated are sprouting cow's heads. Jenner had published his research in 1798. The term vaccination derives from the Latin word for cow (vacca). Smallpox was finally eradicated in 1980, one of the greatest achievements of public health.

Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

Defeating cancer, the 'evil genius'

Can we win the war against cancer? Over the past 18 months, Panorama has followed a group of patients on drug trials. Some who'd been given months to live, are keeping cancer at bay for years.

Read full article

More on This Story


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    Having just had my gall bladder removed the cartoon of the woman with the rope being pulled round her middle by 2 demons rings true for me. It sums up exactly what the excruciating pain was like. I'm thankful to be rid of the blooming thing, it felt like I was being tortured by the Devil.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    Those here denigrating the pharmaceutical industry could benefit from a trip back to the days of these etchings, a time of short and miserable lives from which people were willing to give their all for relief that never came. Pharmaceuticals are modern day miracles, now underpriced and undervalued. The etching subjects would doubtless verify that were they able to post here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    They say a picture paints a thousand words! Mind you 'they' are now saying that heavy road traffic is bad for your health because of all those emissions thrown out, amazing! who would have thought?
    And the health 'experts' puts the emphasis on smoking adverts! Do they not realise that people smoke to relieve the stress of putting up with road traffic...and experts!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    Sshhh...the TORIES will replace the NHS with these cost neutral stuff....I can hear a captain of politics thinking up a cunning plan as I type!

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    Buttock cupping - really? That would surely land you in jail these days. Unless of course...


Comments 5 of 178


Features & Analysis

BBC Future

(Caitlin McNeill)

Do we all see the same colours?

Intriguing science behind #TheDress


  • A robot holding a table legClick Watch

    The robots who build flat-pack furniture - teaching machines to work collaboratively

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.