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MEAD, Richard (1673-1754)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0113 MS-MEADR
Held at: Royal College of Physicians
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Full title: MEAD, Richard (1673-1754)
Date(s): 1695-mid 18th century
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 3 volumes (1 volume contains 2 seals); 1 gold seal
Name of creator(s): Mead | Richard | 1673-1754 | physician


Administrative/Biographical history:

Richard Mead was born in Stepney, Middlesex, on 11 August 1673, the eleventh child of the Rev. Matthew Mead, a celebrated non-conformist minister. Mead was educated at home until he was ten, where he learnt Latin from his resident tutor the non-conformist minister John Nesbitt. From 1683 to 1689 he attended a private school run by Thomas Singleton, previously master of Eton College. Mead entered at the University of Utrecht in 1689 and studied under the instruction of Johann Georg Graevius, classical scholar and critic, acquiring an extensive knowledge of classical literature and antiquities. In 1692 he entered at the University of Leyden where he remained for three years as a student of medicine. Whilst there he attended the lectures of the botanist Paul Hermann and Archibald Pitcairne, Professor of Physic, and became acquainted with his fellow student Herman Boerhaave, with whom he remained friends throughout his life. In 1695 he traveled to Italy, visiting Turin, where it is said that he rediscovered the Tabula Isiaca, and Florence, before graduating MD from the University of Padua on 16 August 1695. He proceeded to Rome and Naples before returning to England in the summer of 1696.

In the autumn of 1696 Mead settled in the house in which he had been born, and began to practice in Stepney, despite not having the required license of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1702 he published A Mechanical Account of Poisons, which was later republished with many additions in 1743. The work was influenced by the teachings of Hermann and Pitcairne. The book was well received and established Mead's reputation, although it has been said that the `rules of treatment laid down are sounder than the argument' (DNB, 1894, p.182). An abstract appeared in the Philosophical Transactions for 1703, and in the same year he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. It was also in 1703 that Mead communicated to the Royal Society an account of Giovan Cosimo Bonomo's discovery of the acarus scabiei, the mite that causes scabies. The following year Mead published a treatise on the influence of the sun and moon upon human bodies, based on Newtonian mechanics, De Imperio Solis ac Lunae in Corpora Humana et Morbis inde Oriundis (1704).

In May 1703 Mead was elected physician to St Thomas's Hospital and moved to Crutched Friars, in the eastern part of the City of London. In 1705 he was elected as a member of the council of the Royal Society. He was re-elected in 1707, and served until his death. In December 1707 he was made MD at Oxford, and in June 1708 was admitted a candidate of the Royal College of Physicians.

In 1711 he was elected lecturer in anatomy for four years to the Barber-Surgeons. It was also in 1711 that he moved to Austin Friars where he was often visited by John Radcliffe, the eminent physician, who it is said `admired his learning, was pleased by his deference, and gave him much help and countenance' (ibid). His practice soon became large and in 1714 he moved to the house of the recently deceased Radcliffe, in Bloomsbury Square. He took over much of Radcliffe's practice and became the chief physician of the day. Mead attended Queen Anne in the days before her death in 1714, but his reputation was enhanced at the Court of Prince George, especially when he attended the Princess of Wales in 1717 and she recovered. In January 1715 he resigned from the staff of St Thomas's Hospital, whereupon the authorities expressed their gratitude and he was elected a governor of the hospital.

In 1716 Mead was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and was censor in 1716, 1719, and 1724. He was vice-president of the Royal Society in 1717. When in 1719 there was great concern about a possible outbreak of plague, Mead was asked by the Government to produce a statement concerning its prevention. Accordingly he published A Short Discourse Concerning Pestilential Contagion and the Methods to be Used to Prevent It (1720). Seven editions appeared within a year, whilst an eighth was published with large additions in 1722, and a ninth in 1744. The book was lucid, interesting and intellectually accessible to all, and did much to allay public alarm. It recommended the practical need to isolate in proper places the sick, over the methods of general quarantine and fumigation. In 1721 Mead superintended the inoculation of seven condemned criminals, all of whom recovered, and the practice of inoculation at the time was established.

In 1720 Mead again moved home and practice, this time to Great Ormond Street, where his house occupied the site of the present Hospital for Sick Children. He wrote prescriptions for apothecaries at a given hour at coffee houses in the City, usually Batson's, whilst he frequented for social purposes Rawthmell's coffee house in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. He saw patients at his home and made many journeys into the countryside. Most fashionable people consulted him; among his more famous patients were Sir Robert Walpole, statesman, Sir Isaac Newton, the natural philosopher, and Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury. His income is believed to have reached, and sometimes exceeded, 6,000. This was despite his often seeing poor patients without a fee and giving money and medical advice to those who were in need of both.

Mead had a large circle of friends, however his closest were Richard Bentley, scholar and critic, and John Freind, physician and politician. It was at Mead's instance that Bentley revised the Theriaca of Nicander of Colophon. The copy of Nicander's work edited by Jean de Gorraeus, given by Mead to Bentley, contains the latter's notes and a prefixed Latin epistle to the physician, and is preserved in the British Library. Mead and Freind's friendship was even closer. Despite Mead being a zealous Whig and Freind a Tory, they shared many opinions and tastes. In September 1716 Mead wrote, in reply to a request from Freind, a letter on the treatment of smallpox, and Freind's De Purgantibus in Secunda Variolarum Confluentium Febre Adhibendis Epistola (1719) is addressed to Mead. When Freind was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1722, suspected of complicity in Bishop Atterbury's Plot, Mead visited him and ultimately procured from Walpole an order for his release. Freind went on to publish his History of Physick from the Time of Galen, in a Discourse written to Dr Mead (1725-26).

In October 1723 Mead delivered the Harveian Oration at the Royal College of Physicians, the subject of which, the defence of the position of physicians in Greece and in Rome as wealthy and honoured members of ancient society, excited some controversy. In 1724 he edited William Cowper's Myotomia Reformata, which was considered the best general account of the anatomy of the human muscular system of the time. Mead had attended George I during his reign, and on the accession of George II in 1727 was appointed physician in ordinary.

Mead corresponded with the principle members of Europe's literati, and numerous dedications were addressed to him. He facilitated many literary projects; between 1722 and 1733 he provided the means necessary for a complete edition of Jacques-Auguste de Thou's History in seven volumes, and in 1729 urged Samuel Jebb, physician and scholar, to edit the works of the philosopher Roger Bacon, which appeared in 1733. In 1744 Mead, over 70 years old, was chosen as President of the Royal College of Physicians, but he declined the position. He later presented to the College a marble bust of William Harvey, physician and discoverer of the circulation of the blood. In 1745 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

In 1749 Mead published Medica Sacra, a commentary on diseases suffered by biblical figures. Mead's last publication came in 1751; Monita et Praecepta Medica was a summary of his practical experience. The value of the book is undermined however by the fact that Mead had not kept copious notes of his cases. It has been said of Mead that he was `a universal reader, but not a perfect observer in all directions' (ibid, p.185). Ultimately however

he brought learning, careful reasoning, and kindly sympathy to the bedside of his patients, and very many sick men must have been the better for his visits' (ibid).

He was incredibly generous and distributed his wealth widely and wisely throughout his life, indeed `his charity and his hospitality were unbounded' (Munk's Roll, 1878, p.42). He was instrumental in persuading the wealthy philanthropist Thomas Guy to bequeath his fortune to founding the hospital subsequently consecrated in his name.

Mead was also a patron of fine arts and a great collector, and was particularly interested in statuary, coins and gems, as well as books, manuscripts and drawings. It is said that he `excelled all the nobility of his age and country in the encouragement which he afforded to the fine arts, and to the study of antiquities' (ibid, p.43). Mead's vast collection included 10,000 volumes, many of which were rare and ancient Oriental, Greek and Latin manuscripts. It was housed in a purpose built gallery in his house in Great Ormond Street, and Mead ensured it was accessible to all. The posthumous sale of Mead's collection realised over 16,000.

Mead married twice. He married his first wife Ruth, daughter of John Marsh, a merchant in London, in July 1699. They had eight children, four of whom, three daughters and one son, survived their mother who died in February 1719/20. In 1724 Mead married Anne, daughter of Sir Rowland Alston of Odell, Bedfordshire. Mead died on 16 February 1754, at his house in Great Ormond Street, after a few days illness. He was buried in Temple Church and a monument to his memory was erected in Westminster Abbey. Mead's friend and patient Samuel Johnson, lexicographer and literary biographer, said of him that he `lived more in the broad sunshine of life than almost any man' (DNB, p.185). In acknowledgement of his interest in botany, a flowering plant was named after him, Dodecatheon Meadia. His gold-headed cane, given to him by John Radcliffe, is preserved at the Royal College of Physicians. The best collected editions of his works were posthumously published, The Medical Works of Dr Richard Mead (1762) and The Medical Works of Richard Mead, MD (1765).

A Mechanical Account of Poisons in Several Essays (London, 1702)
De Imperio Solis ac Lunae in Corpore Humano, et Morbis inde Oriundis (London, 1704)
A Short Discourse concerning Pestilential Contagion, and the Methods to Prevent It (London, 1720)
Oratio Anniversaria Harvaeiana; Accessit Dissertatio de Nummis Quibusdam a Smyrnaeis in Medicorum Honorem Percussis (London, 1724)
A Discourse on the Plague (London, 1744)
De Variolis et Morbillis. Accessit Rhazis de Iisdem Morbis Tractatus (London, 1747)
Medica Sacra: Sive de Morbis Insignioribus qui in Bibliis Memorantur Commentarius (London, 1749)
Monita et Praecepta Medica (London, 1751)
Bibliotheca Meadiana; Sive, Catalogus Librorum R. Mead (London, 1754)

Publications by others about Mead:
'Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754): A Biographical Study', Arnold Zuckerman (PhD thesis, Urbanan, Illinois, 1965)
In the Sunshine of Life: A Biography of Dr Richard Mead, 1673-1754, Richard H. Meade (Philadelphia, 1974)
The Gold-Headed Cane, William Macmichael (London, 1827)


Scope and content/abstract:

Mead's papers and seal, 1695-mid 18th century, include his diploma of DM from the University of Padua, 1695; Notes on materia medica, ealy-mid 18th century (date on edge of volume reads 'Michis [Michaelmas] 1690', but thought to have been written later); Mead's prescriptions, with those of other physicians, which follow 'Observations from Mr Boyle's Usefulness of Experimental Philosophy and the Abridgement of the First Volume', thought to be in Mead's hand, early-mid 18th century; Gold seal believed to be Mead's, n.d. (early-mid 18th century) (located amongst museum objects).

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:
Latin and English

System of arrangement:

Conditions governing access:


Conditions governing reproduction:

All requests should be referred to the Archivist

Finding aids:

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Mead's materia medica notes were presented to the Royal College of Physicians by Dr William Prout, 31 January 1835; His prescriptions were presented by Dr Chaplin, who purchased them from Martin Kingslak, through L.A. Osborne, Assistant General Manager of the Guardian Assurance Company, December 1936; His gold seal was donated by Dr F.B. Meade, 28 October 1981; The provenance of the rest of the collection is unknown

Allied Materials

Related material:

There is also material relating to Mead held elsewhere in the College archives, including Thomas Stack's translation from Latin of Mead's A Treatise Concerning the Influence of the Sun and Moon upon Human Bodies and the Diseases Thereby Produced, 1748 (MS445); Printed version of 'Ode in Artem Anatomicam Ornatissimo Doctissimoque Viro D. Ricardo Mead', post 1716, in a College file on laws and statutes relating to the medical profession (MS2338/10); References to the prescriptions of Mead in Sir John Pringle's (1707-1782) notes on medicine, 1750 (MS496), and in Martha Harley's collection of medical and culinary receipts, 17th century (MS506); William John Bishop's (1903-1961) biographical notes on Mead, n.d. (c.1930-60) (MS707). He also refers to Mead in correspondence with Robert E. Schlueter about 'The Progress of Physic' by Timothy Scribble, 1933-34 (MS516/44); Valerie Ann Ferguson's bibliography of Mead's works, 1959 (MS134); Copy of Mead's autograph and an engraving of his portrait by A. Ramsay (1713-1784) in a medical scrapbook, 18th-19th century (MS735). There are a number of Mead's letters and prescriptions, as well as references to Mead and a draft of his epitaph, 1706-67, amongst the College's Autographed Letters Collection (ALS);

Letters to Mead from Henry Baker (1698-1774) are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, National Art Library, see the National Register of Archives for details; Papers and correspondence, 1720-1738, are held at the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine.

National Register of Archives: Click here to view NRA record

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Sources: The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, vol. II 1701-1800, William Munk (London, 1878) [Munk's Roll, 1878, pp.40-48]; Dictionary of National Biography, vol. XXXVII (London, 1894) [DNB, 1894, pp.181-86]; In the Sunshine of Life: A Biography of Dr Richard Mead, 1673-1754, Richard H. Meade (Philadelphia, 1974); `Richard Mead', H.S Carter, Scottish Medical Journal, 1958 3, pp.320-24; Historical Manuscripts Commission On-Line National Register of Archives.
Compiled by Katharine Williams

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives, Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
Compiled May 2003; Modified September 2003

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