A recent donation to the Royal Society of Medicine of a collection of 24 English Delftware ceramic apothecary jars dating from around 1650 to 1780 is now on display in the Library’s Heritage Centre. This generous gift was donated to the RSM by Professor Richard Ramsden MBE, retired consultant neuro-otologist and former President of the RSM’s Section of Otology (1994-1995).
Professor Ramsden’s fascination with these beautiful objects, which give a unique insight into the practice of medicine in the pre-scientific era, began after he became acquainted in 1977 with Dr John Wilkinson, ‘retired haematologist, pioneer aviator, friend of Baden Powell, and breeder of peacocks and orchids.’ At the time Dr Wilkinson had the largest collection of English Delftware drug jars in the world. Persuaded by Dr Wilkinson, Professor Ramsden began accruing his own collection from auctions, dealers and chance findings.
Professor Roger Kirby, President of the Royal Society of Medicine, said: “This noteworthy collection of apothecary jars is a significant addition to the RSM’s historic collections, which chart the history and evolution of the medical profession. We are extremely appreciative of this substantial gift from Professor Ramsden, which we know will be of great interest to RSM members and visitors to the RSM Library."
Professor Ramsden writes more about English Delftware and how he became a collector of these fascinating medical artefacts
Delftware is a type of tin glazed blue and white pottery that, as its name suggests, originated in the Low Countries and was produced from the 16th century onwards. English potters adopted the techniques and produced what is now known as English Delftware with the main centres in London, Bristol and Liverpool. Within London the best known were found in Lambeth and Southwark.
Drug jars or apothecary jars are amongst the most collectable items of English Delftware, not only for their characteristic appearance but because they give a unique insight into the practice of medicine in the pre-scientific era. Their ornate cartouches describe the substances commonly prescribed, many having a provenance going back to the time of Galen. Chemist shops right up to the 19th century would have rows of these handsome jars on display and in everyday use.
My fascination with these jars goes back to 1977 when I was appointed as a consultant ENT surgeon at Manchester Royal Infirmary and made the acquaintance of the remarkable Dr John Wilkinson, a retired haematologist, pioneer aviator, friend of Baden Powell, and breeder of peacocks and orchids. John had the largest collection of English Delftware drug jars in the world, housed at the time in a purpose-built pharmacy behind his Elizabethan home in Cheshire, and now, since his death in 1988 aged 101, in the Thackray Museum in Leeds.
John introduced me to these charming items and persuaded me to start collecting. When he himself started collecting after the First World War, jars could be picked up for next to nothing. Now, they are hard to come by and my own collection accrued slowly over the years from auctions, dealers, and chance findings.
John presented a paper entitled “Old English Apothecaries’ Drug Jars” at the RSM in April 1969, the year after I graduated in medicine, and it remains the most detailed analysis of the design and decoration of these jars and of the 17th and 18th century potters.
Other collections in London are to be seen at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (the Agnes Lothian Collection), the Royal College of Surgeons (Sir Sinclair Thompson Collection), and the Royal College of Physicians (The Victor Hoffbrand Collection).
Agnes Lothian was a great friend of John Wilkinson. My favourite and oldest jar and the first of my collection (still in my possession) belonged to Agnes Lothian and was acquired for me by John. Victor Hoffbrand, also a haematologist, was “hooked” after listening to John lecture about English Delftware, and Sinclair Thomson, like me, was a Scottish ENT surgeon. A nice little series of coincidences.
In 2022 Professor Ramsden kindly donated his collection of apothecary jars to the Royal Society of Medicine. The collection can be viewed in the Heritage Centre during Library opening hours:
Monday – Thursday & Friday: 9.30am - 6.00pm
Friday: 9.30am - 5.30pm