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The generous Georgian: Dr Richard Mead

While pounding London’s streets you’ve probably come across familiar landmarks such as Sloane Street and Sloane Square. They were both named after Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), an esteemed physician, collector (and reputed inventor of milk chocolate). However, you might not recognise the name Richard Mead, even though he was no less important a figure in 18th century England. An exhibition in London this autumn explores the life and work of a man of whom one biographer said ‘his charity and his hospitality were unbounded’. A new exhibition, The generous Georgian, examines the life of a remarkable man.

Richard Mead (1673–1754) was a highly regarded physician who was friends with all of the most important people of the ages. He published books on many topics, including transmissible diseases such as smallpox, plague and measles.

Like Hans Sloane, Mead was also a collector of books, objects and coins. Sloane’s immense collection of was bequeathed to the nation, and formed the early British Museum. Mead’s sizable and equally significant collections were, however, sold and widely dispersed upon his death, contributing to his relative obscurity today.

A short discourse concerning pestilential contagion and the methods to be used to prevent it. Richard Mead, published London, 1720.

Mead was also passionate about charity, and was heavily involved with the Foundling Hospital as one of its founding governors and as an adviser on medical issues. The Foundling Hospital, established by Thomas Coram in 1741, provided a safe home for abandoned children. Parents left the child at the hospital with a recognisable token so that if they came back to collect them when circumstances had improved, they would be able to identify their child. Foundling children were frequently given work by local business and trained to be apprentices or domestic servants.

The hospital was not a medical institution as hospitals are now – the term was used much more generally – but thanks to Richard Mead, the organisation created a pharmacy on site and a hospital room where ill children could be given the care and treatment needed. Mead also encouraged the children to exercise for the good of their health, and ordered a large courtyard area to be built to enable fresh air and movement.

Many other notable physicians, politicians and artists were involved in the hospital. William Hogarth and his wife Jane, who had no children of their own, fostered many of the Foundling children and Hogarth produced a body of work for the hospital.

The Foundling Museum was created to tell the story of the Foundling Hospital, and a portrait of Richard Mead hangs in one of the permanent galleries there today. The museum’s current exhibition celebrates Meads’ connections to the hospital and his life as a physician, patron and extraordinary collector.

The exhibition includes over 20 loans from the Royal College of Physicians, including one of our portraits of Mead, the gold-headed cane that he used, other personal items, his university diploma, and several printed works, including A mechanical account of poisons (1702), one of Mead’s most influential publications.

Beth Wilkey, curator

The Generous Georgian: Dr Richard Mead runs until 4 January 2015 at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ.

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