Singleton Center for the Study of Pre-Modern Europe: Graduate Student Essay (2010)
In July 1702, Philip Stanhope (1633–1714), second earl of Chesterfield, nearly lost his leg to an incompetent surgeon.1 Chesterfield’s was a life riddled with illness; as he wrote upon leaving a prominent post in the 1680s: “I am fit for nothing but a retirement, being very seldom free either from the stone or gout.” Consequently, he paid for the very best of late-Stuart medical care. In the summer of 1702 he was at his country residence in Bretby, Derbyshire, when he came down with a violent shiver, fever, urge to vomit, swooning, and an unsteady pulse. They “made me think,” he recounts, “that I was certainly a Dying.” The next morning he awoke to find that one of his feet and ankles had swollen, blackened, and become heavy as lead. “[T]hree Holes as big as Pistol Bullets did burst open in my Foot,”pouring forth blood. In distress, Chesterfield called for a surgeon, who said that he would have to amputate immediately, “for it was mortified and gangrened.” The earl, however, would have none of it. “I told him that as I came into the world with two Legs, So I intended to go out of the world with two Legs, and would not have it cut off.” Cowed, the surgeon scarified the foot and left. The next day Chesterfield called another surgeon, who had a different diagnosis—the holes were only “accidental Ulcers.” There was no need for amputation.