Bodies Politic: disease, death and doctors in Britain, 1650-1900

By Roy Porter Publisher: Reaktion Books. ISBN: 186189094X. 328 pages.£25.

Cupped and bled, clystered, purged, electrocuted and half drowned, the patients of Georgian England endured the 'heroic' cures of their doctors to a degree that would have a 21st century service user running for a lawyer.

And what an image these early advocates of scientific medicine created - master showmen, panacea-peddling quacks, defilers of the dead, and even able assistants to Death himself; recruiting sergeants for the afterlife.

For artists such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and an emergent popular press unencumbered by Victorian sensibilities (and libel laws), the parallels with the raucous world of parliamentary politics cried out to be exploited.

Time after time, they showed a stoical John Bull enduring the attentions of the leading politicians of the day - usually to no greater curative effect than doctors had on the individual.

In Bodies Politic, Professor Roy Porter takes a critical look at representations of the human body - alive and dead - and at the changing images of healing over a quarter of a millennium.

He suggests the body can be a signifier and communicator of many meanings - religious, moral, political and medical - and demonstrates how the doctor's art depended on ritual and rhetoric, not to mention advertising.

For this - or at least the Georgian period where this book really comes into its own - was the era of the free market in medicine, and if a patient did not like the diagnosis or treatment, they could always find another doctor.

And since the averagely wellinformed patient would have neither greater nor lesser grasp than the doctor of the scientific principles of disease or their cures, they expected their view to count.

All the more wonder, then, that the treatments of the day were so suited to a time when the humorous sensibilities of the political classes were as attuned as any modern schoolboy's to the comic potential of sharp objects and rounded behinds.

Not that there was always much to laugh at. Bodies Politic quotes this horrifying account of the treatment offered by physician Patrick Blair, in 1725, to a woman who had taken a 'dislike' to her husband:

'I ordered her to be blindfolded.

Her nurse and other women stript her. She was lifted up by force, plac'd in and fixt to the Chair in the bathing Tub. All this put her in an unexpressable terrour especially when the water was let down. I kept her under the fall 30 minutes, stopping the pipe now and then and enquiring whether she would take to her husband.'

It failed to work.

'She still obstinately deny'd till at last being much fatigu'd with the pressure of the water she promised she would do what I desired on which I desisted, let her go to bed, gave her a Sudorifick as usual. She slept well that night but was still obstinate.

I repeated the Tryal by adding a small pipe so that when the one let the water fall on top of her head the other squirted it in her face or any other part of her head neck or breast I thought proper.

Being still very strong I gave her 60 minutes at this time when she still kept so obstinate that she was laid a bed as formerly but next day she was still obstinate.'

Finally, a breakthrough.

'Evacuations being endeavoured for 90 minutes under it, promised obedience as before but she was as sullen and obstinate as ever the next day. Being upon resentment why I should treat her so, after two or three days I threatened her with the fourth Tryal, took her out of bed, had her stript, blindfolded and ready to be put in the Chair, when being terrified with what she was to undergo she kneeld submissively that I would spare her and she would become a Loving obedient and dutiful Wife for ever therafter.'

Another cure effected, then.