The fifteenth of September, 2011: a nasty dog in a dirty shirt

Rootling about in the annals of eighteenth-century surgery (preparing an article for History Today magazine), I came across the lavishly disturbing surgeon John Rainby, and, as a corollary, the circumstances of the horrid death of Queen Caroline.

Rainby – a man “harsh of voice with inelegant manners” (inelegant manners not being the half of it, as we shall see) – was surgeon to Caroline, wife of George II. She was fond of him, or at least she was familiar enough with him to routinely address him as ‘Blockhead’.

In 1737, she suffered an internal rupture.

Queen Caroline to Rainby: ‘I am sure now, Blockhead, you are telling the King I have a rupture.’

Rainby to Queen Caroline: ‘I am so, and there is no more time to be lost – your Majesty has concealed it for too long already.’

She would not conceal it for much longer. But despite her sufferings, Caroline retained that delightful sense of humour with which one will always associate the English aristocracy. When a visiting surgeon, bending to tend the Queen’s needs, inadvertently brushed a lit candle and set his wig on fire, the Queen begged Rainby to hold her hand, so that she could laugh.

Five days before her death, the Queen’s intestine ruptured completely. “The putrefying contents of her belly soaked through the sheets and over the floor,” one historian reports.

The incident provoked a merciless couplet from Alexander Pope:

Here lies, wrapped in towels,

The only proof that Caroline had bowels.

Nice. Back to Rainby. Here’s a rather chilling analysis of his character by a professional rival, the splendidly named Messenger Monsey:

Rainby was the only man I ever heard coolly defend the use of laudanum in effecting his designs on women, which he confessed he had practised with success.

Rainby countered this distasteful allegation not with a rebuttal but with a crisp ad hominem swipe: Monsey, he said, was “a nasty dog in a dirty shirt”.


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