DR. JOHNSON has been a favourite of mine since my youth, and lately there has been a revival of interest in the great lexicographer and his circle. Mr. C.E. Vulliamy has published Ursa Major, Johnsons nickname given him by Lord Auchinleck, disgruntled father of the biographer, whose life is also published in a recent book, The Hooded Hawk, by Mr. D.B. Wyndham Lewis.
Mr. Vulliamy, in an interesting and able book, remarks that Johnsons infirmities were the result of a vast inferiority complex, and that he suffered from an obsessive-compulsive neurosis bordering on insanity.
In John o Londons Weekly of January 7th, 1947, the editor was good enough to print a letter from me wherein I disagreed with this rather sweeping opinion, and where I pointed out that such modern psychological labels sat ill upon Dr. Johnsons head, and that, in my opinion, all he required in the way of medicine was a minute dose of Sulphur.
When I first studied Sulphur in Kents Lectures on Materia Medica I read into the drug several symptoms that poor Johnson suffered from all his life long. I found it a good way to impress the drug on my memory, for, understanding being but a recognition of the familiar, when a drug fits a particular friend whose we know well, the fundamentals of that drug should not readily be forgotten.
In his portrait by Reynolds, we can discern his thick, almost negroid, lips. (Herings swelling of lip, especially upper lip). Fanny Burnley, after she met Johnson, gives an almost perfect pen picture of the sulphur patient: “He stoops horribly his back is quite round his mouth is continually opening and shutting as if he were chewing something; he has a regular method of twirling his fingers and twisting his hands; his vast body is in constant agitation, see-sawing backwards and forwards; his feet are never a moment quiet.”.
Back; Curvature of spine; vertebrae softened.
Lower face; Burning, twitching or trembling of lips.
Nerves; Unsteady gait, tremor of hands.
Dr. Johnson was haunted by the fear of insanity all his days. Did he not tell his friend, Langton, that the story of his life, like all other histories, was a narrative of misery? He thought his gloom was an inheritance from his father. “I inherited”, he told Boswell, “a vile melancholy from my father, which has made me mad all my life, at least not sober.”.
Miss Reynolds put it graphically: “He seemed to struggle incessantly with some mental evil and often, by the expression of his countenance and the motion of his lips, appeared to be offering up some ejaculation to heaven to remove it.”.
He was also much afraid of death and apprehensive of hell the good old-fashioned type of hell. At Oxford in 1784, at the house of Dr. Adams, he was asked by Adams what he meant by damned, and, it is recorded, he cried out loudly and with passion: “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished ever-lastingly.”.
In Herings condensed Materia Medica we can find under Mind, melancholy mood, dwelling on religious or philosophical speculations; anxiety about his souls salvation;.
Hypochondriac mood through the day,
Peevish, irritable, quick-tempered,
Johnson was all these things.
Let us look for a little at a few salient facts in the life of this most remarkable man, author of our first dictionary and the best read man of the eighteenth century, if not of any century. At the age of sixty-three he wrote in his Diary: “I have never yet read the Apocrypha, but have sometimes looked into the Maccabees and read a chapter containing the question, which is the strongest? I think in Esdras.” But we proceed too fast, we do not want to begin at sixty-three, let us glance at Johnson as a boy and pick out the Sulphur characteristics.
From an early age he was indolent. He went to Lichfield Grammar School and such was the force of his personality at the tender age that he got three of his fellow pupils to carry him to school. He went to Pembroke College, Oxford, where he idled for fourteen months, then left without taking a degree.
At the age of twenty he started his career in literature by translating Lobos Voyage to Abyssinia, for which he got five guineas. His way of doing this translation was typical of the Sulphur patient. “He lay in bed with the book, which was a quarto”, says Boswell, “and dictated while Hector wrote.” This Hector was Edmund Hector, a school friend who became a Birmingham surgeon, and whose sister was Johnsons earliest love.
All his life Johnson had a weakness for medical men. Early this year, 1947, Johnsonian Circles were stirred by the fact that a packet of Dr. Johnsons letter to his friend, Lawrence, were found in Dr. Lawrences house in Canterbury. They have not been made public yet. Birbeck Hill described Lawrence as “one of the two physicians from whom Johnson got that knowledge of physic which no doubt shortened his life.” As he lived to seventy-three he did not do badly in an age not remarkable for longevity.
He was twenty-six when he married a Mrs. Porter, a widow more than twice his age, with a grown-up daughter. Victorian smugness and Macaulay are responsible for the notion that the marriage was not a happy one. It was bound to be, for Johnson was a realist in this as well as in other drugs. “Pray, sir”, asked Boswell, “do you not suppose that there are fifty women in the world, with any one of whom a man may be as happy as with any one woman in particular?” “Aye, sir”. declared Johnson, “fifty thousand”.
But I digress from the main purpose of this paper, which was to show that what Johnson needed was Sulphur. (I read that last paragraph to my wife who said in her opinion what he needed was a horse-whipping its all in the point of view!).
There was no doubt Johnson and his Tetty had their differences for he was not tidy in his person or in his habits. “My wife”, he said, “has a particular reverence for cleanliness and desired the praise of neatness in her dress and furniture, as many ladies do, till they become troublesome to their best friends, slaves to their own besoms and only sigh for the hour of sweeping their husbands out of the house as dirt and useless lumbar.”.
Obviously she was the Arsenic type married to her exact opposite, the Sulphur patient.
Dr. Johnson had no great love of cleanliness even for the eighteenth century. When he defended the sanity of Christopher Smart, he said: “Another charge was that he did not love clean linen: and I have no passion for it.”.
His person had an offensive odour. In this connection there is the well known story of the woman whispering whom Johnson reproved with the remark: “Madam, you are wrong I do not smell I may stink, but it is you who smell!”.
Perhaps Psorinum would have come in after Sulphur as there is no do but that he had the psoric taint, for his mother actually took him to be touched by Queen Anne for scrofula.
There are many instances of his being troubled with the itch which disfigured his face. Dr. Russell Brain agreed with Sir Humphrey Rolleston as to its tuberculous nature.
Mrs. Thrale says he was too blind to discern the merits of painting, and that he was almost as deaf as he was blind. Both afflictions are found under Sulphur.
If we could have any criticism at Tetty, his wife, it was that she was no great cook. Dr. Johnson used to grumble a lot about his meals, until one day she lost patience and said, as he was about to say grace: “Nay, hold, Mr. Johnson, and do not make a farce of thanking God for a dinner which in a few minutes you will protest is uneatable.”.
Hering: After eating but little, feels fullness in stomach. Thus can poor Tetty be forgiven.
In spite of this capricious appetite, Johnson, like all Sulphur patients, was always thirsty. One day at Richard Cumberlands, when Johnson asked for another cup of tea, Sir Joshua Reynods reminded him that hed already had eleven cups. “Sir”, said Johnson, “I did not count your glasses of wine why should you number up my cups of tea? His record was twenty-five cups at one sitting.
Dr. Johnson loved fat. It is recorded that at the Thrales good table he saused his plum pudding with melted butter and lobster salad, and he put slices of buttered toast into his chocolate.
An autopsy was performed on Johnson by Dr. James Wilson, assistant to Dr. Cruickshanks, and it is interesting, in the light of what was found, to recollect that Johnson wrote to the Rev. John Taylor in January, 1784. “My nights are restless, my breathing is difficult, and my lower parts continue humid.”.
In the report of the post mortem it is recorded: “The lungs were large and exhibited the condition known as emphysema. The heart was large and strong, but the aortic valves were beginning to ossify. There were traces of incipient peritoneal inflammation and ascites in the visceral cavity. In the gall bladder there was a stone. The liver was firm and hard. (Sir John Hawkins used the term scirrhous).
Entire distinction of the Kidney on the right side and two large hydatides formed in its place. Sir Humphrey Rolleston concluded from this evidence that Johnson had suffered from long-standing high blood pressure with subsequent renal disease involving an excessive degree of cystic change. Sir Fredrick Treves considered that Johnsons ill-health was largely due to his uncontrollable drinking of tea and that his defective eye-sight was the result of corneal leucomas, the product of tuberculous keratitis.