Diagnosing Sir John Gardner Wilkinson: a footnote to the history of Egyptology

Gabriel Moshenska

Figure 1
Figure 1. John Gardner Wilkinson, from a carte de visite c. 1863 (source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Gardner_Wilkinson.jpg).

Attempting to diagnose the medical conditions of prominent historical figures, often based on the most meagre sources, is a popular intellectual exercise amongst some doctors and historians. The nature of Charles Darwin's illness, for example, is a matter of considerable interest in history of science and medicine circles while hypothetical (and frequently nonsensical) diagnoses of Tutankhamen's maladies have occasionally made headlines (Orrego & Quintana 2007).

My subject is the prominent early Egyptologist Sir John Gardner Wilkinson (1797–1875) (Figure 1), a central figure in the development of the discipline, author of the monumental Manners and customs of the ancient Egyptians (1837–41; Wortham 1971: 64). Wilkinson was a scholar of ancient Egyptian religious and funerary art, and an important early supporter of Champollion's method of hieroglyphic decipherment. In the second half of the 1820s he conducted extensive mapping, surveying and recording work at Thebes, leading to the publication of Topography of Thebes and General View of Egypt (1835). My interest in diagnosing Wilkinson emerges from a letter he sent to the surgeon, Egyptophile and antiquarian Thomas Joseph Pettigrew (Dawson 1931). Wilkinson maintained his friendship with Pettigrew over several decades: no mean feat considering Pettigrew's propensity for feuding and back-stabbing. While most of Wilkinson's correspondence with Pettigrew consisted of Egyptological discourse and gossip, in an undated letter he wrote to request medical advice (Wilkinson n.d.a):

My dear Sir,

As it would be impertinent to act contrary to the order of a person versed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians I have not ventured to put leeches upon that part which was eaten by the Plagues — but as I observe there is a certain degree of swelling about the most noble part, the head — I think of attaching two of those ill-looking things to the phallic organ to take the shine out of it & decrease that toadlike tendency to swell & spit — which it now has. All I wish to know is whether it could do him any harm, for if it would not I am sure it would do good — with these infections & under the influence of a pricking pain

I remain
Yrs vry trly
J.G. Wilkinson

To Pet-Jou Priest of Asclepius...

This last is a pet name typical of Wilkinson's letters to Pettigrew. What are we to make of the content of the letter? In faux-light-hearted language Wilkinson describes a painful and embarrassing urogenital condition, as well as the proposed treatment: the blood-sucking leeches much used by nineteenth-century quacks. Little wonder that in these circumstances Wilkinson should write to Pettigrew, a reputable doctor, to request a second opinion. Of Pettigrew's reply there is no trace, but some time afterward Wilkinson wrote again (Wilkinson n.d.b):

My dear Pettigrew

I have deferred writing to you til I could tell you how much good your advice did me & so on — I am very much obliged to you for kindly sending me instructions.

We can suppose from this that whatever treatment Pettigrew prescribed was successful in at least easing the pain of Wilkinson's condition. But what was the malady in question? The symptoms described in the short letter are a sustained and painful swelling of the penis accompanied by a discharge. While there are a number of possible diagnoses based on these symptoms the most likely is gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted infection.

Wilkinson lived in Egypt for twelve years as a young man, and returned several times over the course of his life. His diaries and those of his friends, drawn upon extensively by his biographer Jason Thompson, describe in some detail the sexually adventurous life available to a young man of means in nineteenth-century Egypt, including the ability to purchase women and girls at slave markets (Thompson 1992: 53). While it is possible that Wilkinson contracted a sexually transmitted infection during his sojourn in Egypt his acquaintance with Pettigrew however only began after his return to Britain. Furthermore, given its archival context, his undated letter probably dates to the mid to late 1830s, after his return from twelve years' living in Egypt. At this time he was travelling extensively in Europe, and it may have been mistrust of foreign doctors that led him to contact Pettigrew for a second opinion. Equally, Britain at this time offered many opportunities for a gentleman to contract a 'social disease'.

The medical application of leeches which Wilkinson seems cautiously keen to employ was common during this period. Thompson describes how, during Wilkinson's sojourn in Egypt, his friend and colleague Robert Hay was ineffectually treated with leeches for an abdominal complaint (Thompson 1992: 94). Leeches remained in fairly common use as a medical treatment until the late nineteenth century, and have recently been found to be useful in preventing clotting during microsurgery.

The fact that one of the fathers of Egyptology suffered from an embarrassing and unpleasant medical condition should not diminish his standing and the value of his contribution to the discipline nor, given what is already known of his life, should it come as a great surprise. Aside from the details of his affliction, the most notable aspect of the letter to Pettigrew is Wilkinson's flippancy, real or feigned, in the face of discomfort: this, as much as the medical information, helps to humanise and contextualise him. The aim of this note is to add a modest new dimension to Wilkinson's biography, locating him within the sexual politics and medical limitations of his time and place.


  • DAWSON, W.R. 1931. Memoir of Thomas Joseph Pettigrew F.R.C.S., F.R.S., F.S.A. (1791–1865). New York: Medical Life Press.
  • ORREGO, F. & C. QUITANA. 2007. Darwin's illness: a final diagnosis. Notes and Records of the Royal Society 61: 23–9.
  • THOMPSON, J. 1992. Sir Gardner Wilkinson and his circle. Austin (TX): University of Texas Press.
  • WILKINSON, J.G. n.d.a. Letter to Thomas Pettigrew. Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Yale University, OSB MSS 113/12/568.
    - n.d.b. Letter to Thomas Pettigrew. Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Yale University, OSB MSS 113/12/585.
  • WORTHAM, J.D. 1971. The genesis of British Egyptology 1549–1906. Norman (OK): University of Oklahoma Press.


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  • Gabriel Moshenska
    UCL Institute of Archaeology, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY, UK (Email: g.moshenska@ucl.ac.uk)

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