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Thomas Dover, M.B. (of Dover’s Powder), Physician and Buccaneer: [Excerpt]

Osler, William

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e318132f0ad
Medicine and the Arts

This essay first appeared in the Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital 1896;7:1–6. It was later reprinted in Osler W. An Alabama Student and Other Biographical Essays. New York: Oxford University Press; 1908.

As Sir Thomas Browne remarks in the Hydriotaphia: “The iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.” Thus it happens that Thomas Dover, the Doctor, has drifted into our modern life on a powder label (to which way of entering the company of posterity, though sanctified by Mithridates, many would prefer oblivion, even to continuous immortality on a powder so potent and palatable as the Pulvis Ipecacuanhæ compositus); while Thomas Dover, the Buccaneer, third in command, one of the principal owners, and president of the Council of the Duke and Duchess,—privateers of the ancient and honorable city of Bristol,—discoverer of Alexander Selkirk (the original Robinson Crusoe), in spite of more enduring claims on our gratitude, has been forgotten….

The Ancient Physician’s Legacy, in the language of one of Dover’s correspondents, “made a great noise in London, and was the subject of almost every Coffee-house.”

It contains a description in plain language of about forty-two disorders, illustrated by cases, the majority of which are made to attest in some way to the author’s skill. The later editions abound in letters from grateful patients, extolling his virtues. The pictures of disease are scarcely such as might have been expected from a pupil of Sydenham. The account of consumption or “phtisis,” as he spells it, is very meagre from the hand of a contemporary, possibly a friend, of the author of the Phthisiologia. There are evidences throughout that the book was written “for revenue purposes only,” and the spirit of the buccaneer was not dead in the old man, as no occasion is missed either to blow his own trumpet, or to tilt a lance at his colleagues. “Let me but come to People as early in this Distemper (dropsy) as they generally apply for relief from other Physicians, and it shall be cured,” etc.

On page 18, in the section on gout is given the formula of his famous powder. “Take Opium one ounce, Salt-Petre and Tartar vitriolated each four ounces, Ipocacuana one ounce. Put the Salt-Petre and Tartar into a red hot mortar, stirring them with a spoon until they have done flaming. Then powder them very fine; after that slice in your opium, grind them to a powder, and then mix the other powders with these”….

Doubtless the old buccaneer, described “as a man of rough temper, who could not easily agree with those about him,” was a striking figure as he passed along the Strand to the Jerusalem Coffee House, where he saw his patients. A good fighter, a good hater, as alas! so many physicians have been, his weaknesses and evil behavior we may forget, but Captain Thomas Dover, who on the 2nd of February, 1710, found “Robinson Crusoe,” the world should not forget; and we also of his craft have cause daily to remember with gratitude the student and friend of the great Sydenham, who had the wit, in devising a powder, to remember his master’s injunction: Sine papaveribus, sine opiatis et medicamentis, ex iis confectis, manca et clauda, esset medicina. *

*Without opium, without hypnotics and the medicines made from these, medicine would be helpless and crippled. (Translated in: Boyes JH. Medical history: Dover’s powder and Robinson Crusoe. NEJM. 1931;204:440–443).
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