John Locke and Anne Docwra

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In 1695 the philosopher John Locke, who was residing at Oates, the family home of Francis and Damaris Masham, recorded a treatment for cancer and king’s evil in one of his medical notebooks (Bodleian Library MS Locke d. 9, pp. 306–7). The receipt was for a combination of black lead and red lead boiled and mixed with oil of roses or linseed oil. This was then to be applied as a plaister to ‘cancerous knots’, particularly those in the breast of a woman.

The source of this medical receipt is recorded in Locke’s notebook as ‘Mrs Docwra’. Could this be the Quaker Anne Docwra (c.1624–1710) who published a number of works on Quakerism and who was renowned for her views on the role of women in the church, enthusiasm and toleration?  Until now there has been no known connection between Locke and Docwra. Her name does not appear in any of Locke’s extant writings or correspondence and his name is absent from her writings. However, the circumstantial evidence that we have, together with the contents of Locke’s receipt for cancer, suggest that it is highly likely that the Quaker Anne Docwra is Locke’s source.

Docwra moved to Cambridge after her husband’s death in 1672. Interestingly, Locke’s source records that:

My kinswoman who first used this plaister made it mostly of Linseed oyle. Mrs Fox of Cambridg had a cancerous knot on her breast crookd about the bignesse of my litle finger as hard as a bone. She used this plaister made with Salet oyle for about 14 years before she died. She felt noe pain after she used it, neither did she perceive it grow biger. She told me a short time before her death that she did not find that to be any cause of her death. She died of a consumption & when her flesh was wastd the knot appeard much biger than it did when her breast was plump. (Bodleian MS Locke d. 9, p. 307)

The term ‘kinswoman’ suggests a female relative and ‘Fox’ was a name strongly associated with Quakerism in late seventeenth-century England. The fact that this kinswoman resided in Cambridge provides a link between Mrs Docwra and Cambridge, though one cannot conclude definitively that this Docwra was herself from Cambridge. At the least, however, Mrs Docwra, claims to be an eyewitness just before Mrs Fox’s death, testimony that establishes that this Mrs Docwra was in Cambridge at the time.

Another clue lies in the comment that:

Sometimes upon Knots that are not very hard I lay a litle peice of leaf gold as big as a new threepence or more according to the bignesse of the Knot … (ibid.)

This indicates that Mrs Docwra was a woman of some means as was Anne Docwra after the death of her husband James Docwra.

Locke recorded scores of medical receipts from friends and acquaintances, many of them women. For example, in 1691 he recorded a receipt from Damaris Masham’s mother Mrs Cudworth (ibid., p. 62). And in the same year as the Docwra receipt, 1695, Locke recorded a treatment for ulcers of the mouth recommended by Damaris Masham and Lady Barnard (ibid., p. 58). Normally when Locke derived a medical receipt directly from someone he would add their name after the notebook entry and this is the case with the Docwra receipt. If a receipt derived from a third party he would note its provenance in the entry itself or, occasionally, in the marginal head for the entry. In the case of the receipt for cancer then, it would appear that this derived directly from Mrs Docwra. She, in turn, informed Locke that ‘This plaister was made by a consultation of Surgions at London for a relation of mine who had a Cancerous knot on her breast as hard as a bone’ (ibid., p. 307).

Both Locke and Damaris Masham had theological and philosophical interests in common with Anne Docwra. Moreover, Masham, the daughter of the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, had lived in Cambridge from her birth until 1685, overlapping with Docwra in Cambridge by some thirteen years. Did they meet in Cambridge? Did Anne Docwra’s interests also extend to medicinal receipts? Who was Mrs Docwra’s relative in London? We can only await further research!

This entry was posted in Ideas, Medical History, Philosophy and tagged , , , , by Peter Anstey. Bookmark the permalink.

One thought on “John Locke and Anne Docwra

  1. This is very interesting, because of the Masham connection and because it is similar to recipes that Locke started off collecting in his earliest notebooks. Thank you Peter!

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