The Sins of the Father
In the histories concerning the famous Tasmanian, Peter Degraves, his father is variously described as being an eminent, respected or wealthy doctor, whilst Degraves himself stated in an 1810 court document that he “lost his father in infancy and was brought up by his mother and his aunt”. However, this “loss” of his father was very different from the death that the term normally implies. “Loss” in this case covertly meant disappearance, though, as you will see, it is likely that the son did wish his father had simply died.
In Doctor Degravers' 1786 self-published book A Complete Physico-Medical and Chirurgical Treatise on the Human Eye the author introduces himself as Dr. Peter Degravers, M.D. Professor of Anatomy and Physiology and the world authority on diseases of the eye. The book has been published four times; in France in 1777, then in London in 1780 and, finally, in an extended form and with additional illustrations, in Edinburgh in 1786. Finally in 1990 in English.
The original three editions of Degravers' book did not contain a biography, though their text is full of little anecdotes highlighting the author’s obviously advanced medical skills and knowledge. The biography found in the reprinted version (part of a series called The Classics of Ophthalmology Library published by Gryphon) was put together by the publisher as an introduction to the work of Peter Degravers, but it sheds no light on the doctor’s life prior to his arrival in England. It does admit, though, that he was largely unknown and had been regarded as a quack by most 19th century English medical authorities, though this attitude is changing as modern medical historians review his work without the Anglo-French biases that existed in the 19th century.
Fortunately for history, as well as self publishing, Peter Degravers was an extremely able self-promoter who used the newspapers and other periodicals to keep himself and his medical practice in the public eye. Because of this there exists in the recently digitalised, historic newspapers of London and Edinburgh a body of material that is sufficient to give an insight into his life after his arrival in England—a life that took many a twist and turn and which was never far from scandal.
In the foreword of each English edition of his book, Peter Degravers politely drew the reader’s attention to the fact that he was exclusively responsible for translating his treatise from French to English. The first English edition was a fairly simple instructional textbook on treating diseases of the eye and contained a few basic drawings of cross-sections of the eye. The 1786 edition was a particularly lavish production with high-quality engravings and an additional section for diseases of the ear. This edition was probably paid for by the doctor’s short lived second wife, Elizabeth Baikie, and included an etched portrait of Dr. Degravers done by the famous Scottish barber, etcher and portrait artist John Kay.
While details are sketchy, it can be reasonably assumed that Degravers married Peter Degraves’ English mother, Anne Jones, sometime in the mid 1770s and that their marriage produced at least two children: Peter, in 1778, and his younger brother Henry, in July 1782. Anne Jones was born in Dover in 1753 the daughter of Michael and Deborah Jones. She had a sister Deborah, born in 1755 and a brother, possibly named Charles. Anne's sister Deborah also married a man of French descent and became Mrs Deborah Decharme. that both sisters should marry Frenchmen is not too surprising as Dover was the main port of entrance between France and England.
During the early 1780s records from a wide variety of London newspapers show that Degravers operated a medical practice in London out of his premises at Red Lion Square in Soho, from at least as early as 1780 and that he and his young family also had their London residence there and both his sons were baptaised in the local Anglican church of St George the Martyr in nearby Queens' Square.
Doctor Degravers' practice, whilst being general, had a special interest in diseases of the human eye and, later, the ear. Peter As part of his medical practice Degravers performed the (at that time) very rare and difficult operation of removing cataracts from the eyes of his patients using a clever little surgical knife called a “kystitome”. This was an instrument with a fine doubled edged blade that was normally retracted inside of a thin sheath. The blade could be made to protrude at right angles to the sheath by pressing a button. The kystitome was Dr Degravers’ tool of trade and in his book he described exactly how it was used in an account that takes more than ten pages and is a very detailed guide to removing cataracts. Keeping in mind that Degravers was assuming that the “operator” following his written instructions had not performed the procedure previously, he advises that: “If the patient be of a good constitution…it will be unnecessary to prepare him for the operation by cooling drinks, bleeding or other indications…” It should also be kept in mind that, whilst the description of this operation may seem quite horrific to teh modern reader it needs to be placed in the context of 18th century medical practices and knowledge: placed in this context the practices described can be seen as both advanced and enlightened.
The operation, he stressed, should be performed on a sturdy table in a room darkened to dilate the patient’s iris and that a strong assistant should stand behind to hold the head immobile (there was no local anaesthetic and the patient was fully conscious throughout the operation). Meanwhile the operator slipped a speculum (a kind of eyeball-sized spoon) down between the eye socket and the rear of the eye to hold the eyelid off the eyeball and keep the whole eye still. Once the patient’s head was firmly in the grip of the operator’s assistant, Peter Degravers advised that a sharp knife be rested gently on the eye’s membrane and inserted into the eye “with a slight pressure”; the operator taking great care not to cut the iris. The knife should then be carefully removed from the eye. At this point Dr Degravers suggested that the “operator” should explain to the patient how important it was to keep his eye immobile “and that the pains he is about to suffer are not really as violent as he might imagine.”
Once a cut in the eye was made to the depth of the cataract the sheath of the kystitome was “introduced into the interior of the globe” of the eye via the fresh cut, the button was pushed to “have the blade out of its sheath” and cuts were made left and right and up and down around the cataract. If the patient was co-operating by holding his eye still and was not thrashing about or screaming the cataract was extracted by the operator squeezing the globe of the eye “softly” between his fingers until the cataract popped out of the eye via the passage created by the knives. Once the operation was complete Doctor Degravers suggested a clean linen pad should be strapped over the eye and the patient bled by the arm regularly. But even after regular bleedings the doctor advised that there were still “numerous dangerous consequences” from complications that may await the patient “which might puzzle very much a young beginner.”
How successful the doctor was at removing cataracts, and how many of his patients were pleased with the results, is not known though again it is important to remember that in the 1770's the existance of germs as the cause of infection was not known so antiseptic and sterilisation was not used. As a result it is likely, regardless of the mechanical success of the eye operation, many of Doctor Degravers patients would have suffered infections in the eye.
Regardless of this Dr Degravers would certainly have had some most spectacular successes which would have restored sight to persons who were effectively blind because of their cataracts, and so he continued to promote himself as the leading expert on treating diseases of the human eye in advertisements and “advertorials” in various newspapers and also through the sales of his book, which he advertised heavily in London newspapers from 1780 onwards. During the period from 1780 to 1784, as well as running his London practice, Degravers also gave a regular series of well-advertised lectures, complete with live surgical demonstrations. Thus, according to the Morning Herald and Advertiser of 10 February 1781:
This Day Dr Degravers of the Red Lion Square will deliver the sixth lecture of his Physico-medical and Chirurgical course on the human eye. Such gentlemen students of the hospitals, who have obtained a ticket for the whole course are desired to take their seats as they come in on the right hand side of the theatre to prevent confusion as the preceding evenings. The subject of this lecture will consist in the accurate description of all the medical diseases incident to the human eye, together with the best method to cure them. The chair to be taken precisely at seven o’clock in the evening. The chirurgical disorders will come on the Saturday following.
Terms of attendance are two guineas for which a Ticket is delivered at Dr Degravers’ residence at Red-Lion Square …
Such advertisements usually contained a mention of his book, which was almost certainly also offered for sale at the lectures. Two guineas was a huge amount of money in the 1780s, representing about the same as a master mason’s weekly wage or a month’s wages for a labourer. Thus the advertised lectures provided Degravers with a threefold income stream (with the ticket and book sales being supplemented by whatever actual medical work he gained through the increased awareness of his skills). This in itself was more important than it might at first seem as Peter Degravers was able to exploit a loophole in the convention which prevented English medical practitioners from placing paid advertisements for their practices until the end of the 20th century. For Degravers was not advertising his practice but his lectures and book. Without such a strategy, as a recent French émigré, he would have had to rely purely on word of mouth and social contacts to build up his medical practice, and associated income, in London.
That Degravers was a pioneer of dubious forms of newspaper advertising and direct sales techniques is acknowledged by Hamish Mathison who, in his 1998 paper “Tropes of Well Being: Advertisement and the 18th Century Scottish Periodic Press” cites Degravers’ later advertising in Edinburgh newspapers as an early example of deceptive advertising. For example in the Caledonian Times of 11 November 1786, Degravers placed an “open letter” supposedly from six of his former patients extensively praising his work and skills. Mathison maintains that the letter was specifically designed to blur the lines between a genuine factual article and an advertisement. Whilst Mathison's claims regarding Peter Degravers' advertising techniques are not doubt valid it is also worth considering the mind of a man who was both an expert on eye surgery and advertising.
Doctor Peter Degravers began using this form of advertising in 1780 and continued to refine it through the 1780s in both London and Edinburgh. Indeed, he may well have been the pioneer of the ploy of supporting a paid advertisement with a fictitious “testimonial” letter or a supposed news article. Examples of his advertisements, which were strategically placed on the same page as the following “news” article, appeared in the Whitehall Evening Post on 18 May 1784, and again a week later, in the London Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser on 28 May 1784.
We are informed Dr Degravers has attended the lovely Miss Sh----y and cured the complaint in her eyes which has baffled the attempts of several medical gentlemen…
The “news” piece then went on to promote Degravers’ medical book and lectures. This suggests that the doctor possessed a shrewd business mind and that he used whatever means he could to promote himself, his lectures, his books and his reputation, none of which might ever have gained any attention from his peers or the public had it not been for the self-promotion campaign he sustained for most of the 1780s.
Another interesting insight into Peter Degravers’ approach to his lectures is that the notices for these and accompanying “news” pieces often occurred on the newspapers’ “Entertainment” page, alongside reports of stage performances and other diversions. Perhaps Degravers knew that there was an implicit offer of entertainment of an unusual kind in his promise in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser of 28 July 1781:
A great many patients shall be dressed and operated upon in the lecture room… By such practical demonstrations those who attend this course shall undoubtedly acquire in very short time... practice of the most delicate part of the physic and surgery that would cost many years of study without such an opportunity.
Being pursued by his creditors Doctor Degravers fled Lond to Edinborough where he had more 'adventures'.
As a result of his actions in both Edinburgh and London Dr Degravers would have found it almost impossible to practise medicine in any city in the British Isles. Finding his options limited Peter Degravers M.D. took to the sea. The next phase of his colourful life is preserved in a number of letters he wrote between 1790 and 1792 to the owner of the British slave-trading company James Rogers & Co. From these it is clear that, sometime after fleeing Edinburgh, Degravers gained employment as the medical officer on board a slave ship called the Pearl, owned by the aforesaid Bath-based slave-trading company. In a letter to his employer, James Rogers, Degravers shows himself to be a strong supporter of the slave trade.
"I have now finished the History of the Kingdom of Haifock, commonly called Old Calabar… I have not mentioned the transactions of your ship masters, nor those of others, leading to the ideas which a copy of my journal have naturally raised within you; the barbarians would most undoubtedly have been productive of another argument to abolish the slave trade, which obviously is clearly demonstrated humane in the actual state of that part of Africa."
There is no evidence that the doctor’s History of the Kingdom of Haifock was ever published and unfortunately neither the journal or the manuscript can be located.
Degraves left the slave ship Pearl and the employ of James Rogers & Co. in 1792 and moved back to London where he embarked on his next great project.
In 1794, Peter Degravers and a French colleague named Henry Ould submitted to the Longitude Board a paper called “The Longitude discovered, by a new Mathematical Instrument, called “Graphor.” Unfortunately for Degravers and Ould, contemporary developments in determining longitude with the chronometer and improvements to the sextant had largely satisfied the Board’s requirements in this area and their paper was rejected. Despite this setback Degravers continued to promote the Graphor, and its associated “New Mathematics” maintaining that its advantages had not been fully appreciated. To help his cause he resorted to his familiar tactics by employing the London press to promote his invention. He and Ould published a long and complex pamphlett explaining the Graphor and the associated new mathematic followed by an open letter to the Board of Longitude in several London newspapers and journals. In this letter they explained the basics of the “New Mathematics” in order to try to pressure the Board to reconsider the rejection of their invention. Sadly for the two inventors, not only was the Board not moved, but the tactic resulted in several unfavourable reviews of the Graphor and the associated New Mathematics such as the one below by Hookham and Carpenter in the Monthly Catalogue.
“The Longitude discovered, by a new Mathematical Instrument, called Graphor.”
We have heard so often of the Longitude being discovered that, on reading the title of this Book, we were very willing to make allowances for the author’s sanguine expectations, and to be reconciled to the event, if it should be found that this grand geographical mystery had eluded his most accurate researches. With this resignation we opened the work; but notwithstanding the positive assurances of the writer, that the secret was discovered, our natural incredulity took possession of us, when we found that the Board of Longitude had been applied to, but had not designed to take notice of the communication…”
Degravers’ response to these rejections was to offer his system up for public scrutiny by appointment at his residence. Indeed, he went further, advertising an opportunity for the public to invest by subscription in his invention through an interesting instrument involving an “independent” trustee. Hookham and Carpenter described the device in The Critical Review:
“Before the public is favoured with a description of this wonderful instrument (the Graphor), a subscription is requested, which, when it amounts to £20,000 is to be, at the discretion of twelve able persons chosen by the subscribers, who are to examine the merits of the instrument, and if it answers, the inventors are to call upon the subscribers for the money. In the mean time, any person wishing to have a sight of the instrument, is desired to send a letter, post paid, to Messrs. Peter Degravers, M.D. and Henry Ould, at the Literary Assembly, No. 15. Old Bond Street; and a few days after they will receive a letter with an appointment to see it.”
Unfortunately for Degravers and Ould, the public perception of the Graphor’s commercial potential appears to have been affected by the negative reviews and the ambitious target of £20,000 in subscriptions was never reached. The result of these public rebuffs was that the Graphor, the “New Mathematics” and Degravers disappeared from London altogether and the 1794 attempt to claim a financial reward from the Longitude Board and subsequent media coverage appears to have been the last time that the flamboyant doctor attempted to employ the press in an exercise of self-promotion.
No further referances to the activities of Peter Degravers have been found. There is some suggestion that he may have moved to the southern states of the U.S.A. where there are referances to a flamboyant French dance instructor named Degraves. Other conjecture has him moving to the French Carribean. Or he may just have died. What ever was the case there can be little doubt that he was a man of genius, ahead of his time in many areas but who, like so many others before him fell victim to his own excesses.