Music for medicine

While preparing materials for medical students the other day, I searched for sample materials in journals like The Lancet and the British Medical Journal. In their archives I found what I was looking for, but then curiosity got the better of me. Instead of continuing with my work, I spent hours searching in the old issues, back to the early 19th century, and I made some great discoveries. Number 1 issue of Volume 1 of the BMJ’s predecessor, the Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, published on October 3, 1840, was priced sixpence (with the stamped edition sevenpence – I imagine that includes the postage; this was the time of the penny post).

The ‘introductory address’ (editorial) by Dr. Green and Dr. Streeten in the same issue was enlightening. The first objective of the journal was ‘the maintenance of the honour and respectability of the medical profession’. They expand this objective with laudable goals including primarily ‘the establishment of a system of competent medical education’ and so on. Interestingly, they add ‘At the same time, these measures have a direct tendency to maintain medical practitioners, as a class, in that rank of society which, by their intellectual acquirements, by their general moral character, and by the importance of the duties entrusted to them, they are justly entitled to hold.’ Some may feel this is still the case today.

I really enjoyed one of the book reviews in the same issue. The review of Dr. Waller’s A Practical Treatise on the Function and Diseases of the Unimpregnated Womb merits being quoted in full. ‘The greater portion of the contents of this volume has already appeared in the form of lectures, in the pages of a contemporary Journal. Dr. Waller has been induced to collect his lectures together, and publish them in the more imposing form of a “book”. We have misgivings of the expediency of this proceeding. The lectures were sufficiently instructive for the junior pupils of a second-rate school; but when dished up as a “practical treatise,” they produce very nearly the same effect as the “crambe repetita” of the Roman poet. The whole concern, in fact, is most “lame and impotent.” Brevity is occasionally an excellent quality, because the less one has of a bad thing the better; but assuredly the most important parts of our “better halves” deserve more attention than could be bestowed upon them in 200 scanty pages of common-place professorial twaddle.’ Clearly, Messrs. Green and Streeten felt this was a book that filled a much needed gap.

Equally intriguing was the first issue of the Lancet on October 12, 1823. It contains a report on the Birmingham Musical Festival of that week. The aim of the Festival was to raise money for the General Hospital in Birmingham. The report states that the Festival, celebrated every three years, had started in 1778, and from 1784 was run every three years. In 1820 the Festival raised £5001 for the Hospital (which I calculate would be worth about £305,000 in today’s money).

The Festival in fact became the world’s longest running classical music festival of its kind, running every three years from 1784 until 1912. Many famous composers were commisioned to produce new work for the Festival, notably Max Bruch, Charles Gounod, Anton Dvořák, and Edward Elgar.

The first morning of 1823 event was faithfully recorded in the pages of the Lancet. The performers included the top artistes of the day, such as Madame (Angelica) Catalani, Mrs (Eliza) Salmon, Miss (Catherine) Stephens, the celebrated tenor Mr (John) Braham, and the orchestra was conducted by Mr (Thomas) Greatorex, the great conductor and organist (also a mathematician and astronomer). Greatorex was the conductor of the King’s Concert for 40 years, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. George IV, when Prince Regent, said to Greatorex, ‘My father is Rex, but you are a Greater Rex.’

That the Lancet should devote four pages of its first issue to the Festival demonstrates the importance of charitable donations for medical practice from the early days. Today we seem to be returning to that source of funding.

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