Every word counts

Eccentric – The Life of William Price at Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, London

By Peter J Pullan

This was an account of the life of an extraordinary man in the 1800’s. William Price had a disadvantaged upbringing but rose to qualify as a surgeon when he was 21 and then returned to his native South Wales to become surgeon to the ironmaster Francis Crawshayte. His eccentric behaviour showed in his colourful clothing and his unorthodox approach to medicine where, among other things, he believed that a vegetarian diet was far more important than anything else and he refused to treat patients who would not give up smoking. He did not support the practice of pumping people full of pills until he understood the true cause of a patient’s illness – doctors today could take note. He was an early example of the health service, having patients pay him when they were well and then treating them for free when they fell ill. He also demonstrated a kind of co-operative movement to enable protesters in Pontypridd to buy food after they were barred from local shops.
He was fascinated by Egyptology, Hinduism and druidism that brought him into conflict with more orthodox local views. He had little time for marriage, believing that it enslaved women, but he did believe in (and practice) free love. He advocated the rights of ordinary people through his support for Chartism. He demonstrated brilliant legal thinking and defended several cases brought against him.
Just as you thought this can’t go on, at 83 he fathered a son by his housekeeper, some 60 years his junior and called the son Jesus Christ Price! (I still can’t stop laughing!) When the son tragically died at the age of 4 months, Price carried out an open cremation of his son’s body that saw Price brought before the courts. He argued his case and was acquitted, a ruling that led to cremation becoming accepted practice. For his own cremation, Price had asked that tickets be sold; some 20,000 tickets were sold for the event and the pubs ran dry.
The speaker, Dean Powell, gave a hugely enjoyable presentation of the life of Dr William Price, not hesitating to link many of the events to today’s thinking. This was, without doubt one of the most entertaining lectures I have ever attended. There was a technical problem with the microphone which meant that rather than hearing about 50% of the talk which I could when the microphone was operating, I could hear nothing at all, but the speech to text kept valiantly on enabling me to completely understand and enjoy this talk.

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The Arts Council
The Arts Council
The Arts Council