A Rebellion's Surgeon

Which William?

Mention the name William Oliver in Bath and most people will immediately think of the originator of the round, dry, hard biscuit that bears the name both of the city and of the physician who invented it. But they would be reckoning without the improbable coincidence that two medical men with identical names were practising their profession in the same city at the same era. The Dr William Oliver (1695-1764) who is credited with the invention (and with making the fortune of his coachman to whom he bequeathed the recipe, £100 and ten sacks of the finest wheat-flour) is not the man who is buried in Bath Abbey and whose memorial tablet is on the south nave wall beside the font. 


18 Months a Medical Student

The tablet is accurate in what it does report, but it does not tell the whole story. The son of another William, rector of Launceston, and his wife Alice, née Middleton, this Oliver did indeed interrupt his medical studies at the University of Leiden (where he had enrolled on 17 December 1683, at the age of 25); but before he came to England with William of Orange, he had come over as one of three surgeons with the troops under the Duke of Monmouth in that man’s ill-fated attempt to depose his uncle, James II. As this took place in the summer of 1685 one wonders how much surgery Dr Oliver had learned in his first 18 months as a student! 

View the person record: William Oliver

Monmouth Rebellion (1685)

The rebellion, centered on Somerset, failed at the battle of Sedgemoor and William Oliver left the battlefield in the company of Monmouth and Lord Grey and a few others. Oliver himself later told the historian John Oldmixon (of Weston-super-Mare) that after they had ridden about 20 miles, he had suggested to Monmouth that they should turn north to the coast of the Bristol Channel to escape to Wales;  but the Duke did not heed the advice, rode towards the South coast to be captured in Dorset and promptly beheaded for treason. Oliver, however, took his own advice, went to Bristol, lay low while Judge Jeffreys conducted the Bloody Assizes – and then brazenly rode back to London in the company of that judge’s clerk to whom he had been recommended by friends as a loyal Tory royalist!  

He eventually returned to Leiden and in 1688 did indeed come back to England with William’s army and was duly rewarded for his loyal support of the new king. He qualified as a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in London in September 1692 – presumably after completing his studies, at last – and then spent nearly ten years with the Royal Navy, as physician to the Red squadron. From 1702 to 1709 he divided his time between London and Bath and contributed a number of papers to the journal Philosophical Transactions which led to his being elected Fellow of the Royal Society on 5 January 1704.  As his monument relates, he spent his remaining years in charge of naval hospitals, at Chatham and then at Greenwich where he died on 4 April 1716. He never married. 

Out of his Practical essay on fevers, containing remarks on the hot and cold methods of their cure (1704) came the treatise A practical dissertation on Bath waters (1707 and many later editions) which endeared him to those promoting the properties of the spa water. It is probably the fame of these scientific papers that accounts for the quill pen surmounting his memorial tablet in preference to any symbol of the medical profession. 

Text taken from The Friends of Bath Abbey Annual Report 2022 – Jeremy Key-Pugh.

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