Exhibit of Week: Medical practitioner with questionable credentials

Dr Rooke's book dating from 1868.
Dr Rooke's book dating from 1868.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Scarborough seemed to have rather more than its fair share of doctors and other medical practitioners – perhaps because, in those pre-NHS days, the taking of the Spa waters was a popular remedy among wealthy people, so the town was often busy with visitors, some of them genuinely ill, some undoubtedly what we would now call ‘the worried well’.

One such doctor was Charles Rooke (1808 [or possibly 1809]-1872), listed in Pigot & Co’s Directory of Yorkshire for 1841 as a ‘chymist and druggist’. Dr Rooke’s medical credentials appear to be possibly a little questionable, but what is undeniable is his talent as a self-publicist.

Our two items today were both published by Dr Rooke – on the left, a book, dating from 1868: ‘The Anti-Lancet, or the Destructive Practice of Bleeding &c, Exposed and Denounced; Showing the Principles of Life and Death, and the Origin of all Diseases; with a Description of the Most Efficacious Medicines ever made known to the World for their Relief and Cure.’

On the right, an advert, probably torn from a book, for ‘Dr Rooke’s oriental pills and solar elixir’, promising ‘invariable success in the relief and cure of indigestion, liver complaints, asthma, bronchitis, pulmonary consumption, rheumatism, gout, scrofula, general debility, and all diseases of the nervous system, whether arising from a sedentary mode of life [plus ça change!], unhealthy occupation, insalubrious climate, or any other cause’.

The reverse also advertises Dr Rooke’s golden ointment, a panacea sold in beautiful little black-and-white ceramic pots decorated with a phoenix rising triumphantly from the ashes, and bearing the claim that the ointment was ‘discovered’ in 1839. The ointment was sold well into the early 20th century.

Whether Dr Rooke was a shameless quack or a genuinely committed medical innovator is difficult to tell after all these years – but he certainly made money. His pots of golden ointment sold for between 13½d and 2s 9d; in the middle of the 19th century, a labourer could expect to earn between nine and ten shillings a week.

His home, Belle Vue Cottage on Falsgrave – an engraving of which can be found in the pages of the Anti-Lancet – housed both an observatory and his own private museum.

Dr Rooke was a fellow of the Geological Society and also an active member of the Scarborough Philosophical Society, which founded the Rotunda Museum, and occasionally lectured to its members. On his death, his business opposite the railway station was taken over by his son, William Foster Rooke (1833-1887). William was also Mayor of Scarborough between 1870 and 1872. His wife, Jessy, was the daughter of William Bean, also a member of the Philosophical Society, and an eminent and pioneering geologist and conchologist (one who studies shells).

You can take a closer look at today’s exhibits, and other items relating to medicine, in the next Collections Close-up at Scarborough Art Gallery. ‘Medical Matters’, on Wednesday October 7, will be led by Scarborough Museums Trust’s Documentation Assistant Jim Middleton.

The monthly Close-ups feature a themed selection of items from the Scarborough Collections, each one explained by a member of the Scarborough Museums Trust team. They take place on the first Wednesday of each month (a change of day; until recently, they were on Tuesdays). Each takes around an hour, and participants are asked to meet at Scarborough Art Gallery at 2.30pm. Places are free, but are limited, so booking is recommended. To book, or for further information, please call the Art Gallery on 01723 374753.

For more information on the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.