For the last major exhibition of the Foundling Museum’s 10th anniversary year, the focus turned to the life and work of Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754), one of the most eminent physicians, patrons, collectors and philanthropists of his day, and a significant figure in the early history of the Foundling Hospital.
A leading expert on poisons, scurvy, smallpox and public health, Mead’s patients included Queen Anne, George II, Sir Isaac Newton and the painter Antoine Watteau. Mead was no stranger to daring acts and fierce controversies, with stories of drinking snake venom in his investigations into the effects of various poisons, and fighting a duel to defend his theory on smallpox treatment. He also possessed a deep-seated passion for the arts, demonstrated in a lifetime’s patronage of painters such as Allan Ramsay and a revered collection of masterpieces that included works by Dürer, Holbein, Rembrandt, Poussin and Canaletto.
Smallpox was endemic in Georgian England, and killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans throughout the eighteenth century. Though vaccination against smallpox was developed by Edward Jenner at the end of the century, inoculation was promoted decades earlier. Dr Mead was an ardent and effective advocate of this procedure, which saved the lives of many, including foundlings: of the 247 children who were inoculated at the Foundling Hospital, by 1756 only one had died of the disease.
To explore Mead’s diverse contributions to Georgian society, as collector, philanthropist and physician, this exhibition reunited key objects from his life and collection, as evidence of his significance in London’s cultural landscape. These include an ancient bronze Arundel Head from 2nd Century BC and Allan Ramsay’s half-length portrait of Mead. His home on Great Ormond Street backed onto the Foundling Hospital grounds, and housed his magnificent collection of paintings, sculptures, antiquities, coins and a library of over 10,000 books. Painters and scholars were given access to Mead’s renowned collection which, in a time before public galleries, offered visitors a rare chance to view artistic masterpieces from around the world.
Items from the Foundling Museum archive, such as the minutes from the very first Governors’ meeting, and the logs of daily life at the Foundling Hospital, were also on display to illustrate Mead’s relationship with the Hospital and the important role he played in its early history. Mead dedicated considerable time and energy to the Hospital, encouraging his noble clients to support the charity, serving as a Governor and giving his clinical expertise pro bono. Documents show that sometimes his contribution went even further, from attending sick children, advising on nurses’ salaries and suggesting medicines to keep in stock.
Mead’s generosity in every aspect of his life meant his family were burdened with huge debts following his death. Perhaps anticipating this, Mead’s will ordered for the sale of thousands of objects from his incredible collection – in an auction lasting a grand 56 days. Through a number of key objects, this exhibition highlighted a once-legendary collection which, compared to that of his contemporary and founder of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane, is not so well known today.
This fine exhibition offers a fitting opportunity to remember one of the pioneers of modern public health policy