John Howard Passed As a Medical Doctor

face of a prisoner

John Howard was a pioneering social scientist who recorded conditions in prisons and hospitals late in the eighteenth century. In 1945, The Soviet News published a story entitled in English translation, ‘Our Friend Dr. Howard.” This story was a heroic story of Howard and the restoration of his Kherson memorial after the Germans, who had destroyed it, were defeated. The story described Howard as a medical doctor:

He {Howard} stopped in Smyrna and Constantinople to give his services, as a doctor, in fighting the {plague} epidemic. …

Howard, who spoke Russian, worked with the local doctors. He himself treated patients, helped to set up hospitals and to provide the sick with medicine and food. …

British and American seamen on shore leave in Kherson {after World War II} sometimes stop to ask who is buried there {at a monument undergoing restoration}.

“An Englishman. Our friend, Dr. Howard,” the Kherson workers reply.^

Post-World War II Soviet propaganda apparently influenced the form and content of the story. The presentation of Howard as a doctor, however, was not fabricated. Howard actually acted as a doctor.

A early, credible source testifies to Howard’s sense of acting. That source reports that on ship traveling to Lisbon in 1755, Howard addressed the husband of a woman who had gone into labor:

{Howard} addressed himself to that gentleman, saying “that although no professional man, yet, as physic had engrossed much of his study, and he was sensible that the lady must perhaps perish for want of assistance, he would, if agreeable, visit her, and give her what help his little knowledge of midwifery permitted.”

The woman gave birth to a child. Both the woman and the child survived. Howard’s close friend John Aikin had extensive institutional training and experience as a doctor. Perhaps Howard sought to emulate in practice Aikin. In any case, in later years Howard evidently became more confidant in acting like a doctor:

When he {Howard} travelled, it was usually in the stage or diligence, and on the road constantly changed both name and character with his servant; a man whom he had brought up from a boy, and in whom he placed the most implicit confidence. … On Mr. Howard’s arrival at his place of destination, it was his practice to pass as a physician, and under that character he visited the Greek hospitals at Zante, Smyrna, &c. to investigate more deeply their method of treating the plague. He held frequent consultations with the physicians of the different places … In one of his letters to a friend in England he says, “I arrived in Salonica on Saturday, in a Greek boat full of passengers, one of whom being taken ill, he was brought to me, as I always pass as a physician. I felt his pulse, looked at the swelling, and ordered him to be kept warm in a little cabin, as he had caught cold.

Howard acted other characters in addition to a doctor and his servant. Howard procured publications about the Bastille “under the disguise of an old fruit woman.”^ Howard’s acting ability also helped him to gain access to prisons. Howard, famous as a sober and meticulous collector of information, apparently was also an expert in applied theater.

As Howard became more famous, he began to fear that someone might try to do him harm. When a tall, masculine-looking woman expressed zealous admiration for Howard and eagerness to see him, Howard suspected an assassination attempt:

the idea of a man disguised in woman’s clothes instantly occurred {to Howard}, and he hastily rung his bell, and by a look commanded his servant to wait. — His fears were, however, groundless, for the good woman, after having sufficiently wearied his patience with an enthusiastic and bombast display of the vast veneration in which she held his labours in the cause of humanity, very quietly took her leave; declaring “she could now die in peace.”^

Unlike nearly all of his many biographers, Howard was keenly aware that appearances can deceive.

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