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The Society of Skilful Aunts

Robert Heath in his 'Natural and Historical Account of the Islands of Scilly' (1750) describes an island community without trained doctors, its healthcare instead provided by a small group 'wise-women'.



For Want of Male Practitioners in Physic, the few Diseases, and Hurts, in these healthful Islands have, for these many Years last past, been remedied by a Society of skilful Aunts, constituting a Sort of College of physicians in Scilly, of which Aunt Sarah is the Head or President whose Judgment, at a long Consultation, is preferred to the rest, and who is first applied to in all Difficulties. When they assemble upon a woeful, desperate, or doubtful Case, they resign the Patient to God and Nature while the attending Doctress provides a warm Room, a Nurse, and fit Necessaries, which co-operate with uncommon Success. Common Diseases here, not proceeding from Luxury, Laziness, and Intemperance, are cured by one of the subordinate Practitioners with a few Simples without calling in the Assistance and Judgement of a second or third Graduate.

They are all good Botanists, and have added a great many Herbs to their Catalogue, as also reduced many of the Compounds of their Dispensatory. They inspect not into the Motions of Atoms, Particles and Corpuscles, nor pretend to analyze Substances, nor yet to explain Cohaesions and Attractions, Densities and Rarifactions, which to them is unintelligible Jargon. They attempt not to anatomize Matter, or account for its various and wonderful Effects upon other Matter, actuated by, or constituting a conscious Substance. The Mode of nervous Sensation, and of muscular Motion are to them inexplicable; as are likewise the Mysteries of Digestion, Transmutation, and Nutrition; Generation, Gravitation, and Cogitation. They aim not to discover the Series of infinite Causes and their dependent Effects; but endeavour to excel in the experimental Knowledge of their Art. Their Systems and Hypotheses are to help those in Distress for Pity's Sake rather than for Profit. The have no Ambition to be thought sagacious as Conjurors, by significant Nods, shrewd Looks, and mysterious hard Words, nor do they assume an Air of Importance for the Sake of a Fee. Their whole Art is delivered in plain and intelligible English (like a famous modern Treatise of Operations in Surgery) and their sole View is to remove Pain and procure Ease; for the Performance of which their good Will and Experience are their Directors; as a Treat or Value for their Medicines is their only Reward. And a sick Stranger, or Islander of Circumstances, can seldom prevail with them to accept of any Present till the Cure is performed.

They have Store of Chymical and Galenical Medicines (like the Brotherhood of foreign Colleges) which are brought to these Islands by Surgeons of Merchant-Ships and Ships of War, who are sometimes Apothecaries. The Simples and Compounds of their Dispensatory consist only of such Medicines as they have in the Course of their Practice, for some Hundreds of Years, found most effectual in removing Hurts and Diseases to which the Islands are chiefly subject, whereby they have retrenched their Materia Medica to a very narrow Compass; rejecting those Medicines found of inferior Effect. They have some disguised Nostrums and Specificks, the true Secrets of which Compositions are deposited with their President. And the Methods or Medicines they prescribe to their Patients, they strictly pursue, or take themselves.

Here we behold what Doctors ought to be,

Their Practice what, and what should be their Fee.

Taught by Old Women, let them learn their Part,

How much they owe to Nature more than Art.

The fam'd Hippocrates they never read,

Galen, nor Boerhaave, Hans Sloane, nor Mead.

Dispensaries, the Doctor's last Resource,

Are substituted by a skilful Nurse:

She ministers, but watches Nature's Cue,

And wife Experience tells her what to do.

With Simples, or Compounds, as suits the Case,

She moves the Pain, and gives the Patient Ease.

The Pulse she raises, in low Ebb of Blood,

And lowers to Order, throbbing at high Flood:

With Words of Comfort banishes each Fear,

And friendly sooths away the Patient's Care.

O mighty Phoebus! if you can, prescribe

A better Practice for the learned Tribe:

For which of all ye Sons of Art can vaunt

The Cures accomplish'd by a Scilly-Aunt?

They read no Lectures in Anatomy, nor understand any of those technical Terms; being not brought up to Latin and Greek; nor do they puzzle themselves about Fibres, Contextures, Animalcula, prolific Aura Ovaria, and Fallopian Tube. However they all understand the Nature of Propagation, and the Operation of Midwifry, at which they are all reckon'd very skilful Artists, to whom the present Generation of Scilly are beholden for their Appearance in the World.

They have no human Skeletons to shew the Articulation of the Bones, whether by Gomphosis, Sutura, or Gynglimus; nor do they keep any stuft Skins of Animals, whether of Fishes, Beasts, Birds, or Insects, to shew their Judgments and Apartments equally wonderful! But the direct the slipping in of a Joint, joining a Limb, by comparing it with its Fellow, at the same Time, applying Something to ease Pain, and wrapping the Parts up till the Cure is performed, or other Judgment, if necessary can be procured. Wounds are soon cured by their soft Bandages and excellent warm Balsams; and all Swellings they quickly reduce by their comforting warm Pultices! very needful on some Occasions in these remote Islands. Asswaging Inflammation, laying open, and removing Obstacles, according to proper Methods, they leave the general Work of Healing to Nature, whose Art is wonderful. As to the President, Sarah Jenkins, (commonly called Aunt Sarah) being a Person of singular Skill and Circumstance, she does many Acts of Charity and Benevolence to the Poor-Distressed; to which the rest of the younger Sisterhood who are not a little amiable, contribute their Parts.

The President is remarkable for her venerable long Beard, which some imagine operates miraculously to the Benefit of those who stroke it. Her Deputy in Surgery bleeds, draws Teeth, &c.