The Georgian way of death

An exhibition reveals how Dr Johnson faced the prospect of dying. Kate Chisholm reports

The last days of the great essayist and dictionary-maker Dr Johnson were recorded in vivid detail by his biographer, James Boswell. Breathless and in pain, Johnson, aged 75, prepared himself for death with admirable courage. He had been plagued all his life by a fear of the dark, by the insomniac’s dread of not waking up; a dread made sharper by his fervent belief in Purgatory, Hell and the Day of Judgment.

For Johnson, religion was no panacea and the prospect of death was appalling. And yet, with characteristic moral strength, he also contemplated his approaching demise with rational detachment. He asked his physician, Dr Brocklesby, to tell him plainly whether or not he would recover. When told that it would take a miracle, Johnson replied, ‘Then, I will take no more physick, not even my opiates; for I have prayed that I may render up my soul to God unclouded.’

At seven o’clock, in the deep, dank darkness of a December evening, he died, watched over by his manservant Francis Barber and by Mrs Desmoulins, the last remaining female member of his mismatched household. But, as a new exhibition at Dr Johnson’s House in London reveals, by the morning of the second day, his body had been carried down the stairs of No. 8 Bolt Court and into a waiting cart. Anyone who had followed the cart would have seen that it was driven up the Strand and beyond Covent Garden to the yard of a house in Great Windmill Street. No plaque advertised the house’s business, but this was William Hunter’s school of anatomy, where student surgeons were instructed in the art of dissection.

On display in The Tyranny of Treatment: Samuel Johnson, His Friends and Georgian Medicine is the autopsy report. We discover that the body was ‘opened’, in the presence of his surgeon William Cruikshank and other doctors who had witnessed Johnson’s last illness.

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