Victorian Scientists and Periodicals

In a new series of blog posts, ConSciCom researchers will share the little-known periodicals and personalities they’ve uncovered in the course of their research.

Medical Mirror (1864-70)

Alison Moulds

Medical Mirror 1

An advertisement for the Medical Mirror, which appeared in the BMJ (1866).

The Medical Mirror was a general medical monthly, published in London. It was originally edited by metropolitan physician William Abbotts Smith. In July 1866, editorship passed to his colleague Alexander Thorburn Macgowan, who had served as Staff-Surgeon in the 52nd Oxfordshire Light Infantry. Three years later, Macgowan retired and sold the copyright of the journal.[1] The Mirror’s last editor – who oversaw production between September 1869 and December 1870 – was anonymous and has not been identified.

In his 1864 opening address, Abbotts Smith announced that his aim was ‘the production of a cheap and useful serial’. He suggested that, while the Mirror would be ‘essentially a Review’, it would also contain ‘information on current topics of professional interest’. Essentially, he pitched it as occupying an ‘intermediate position’ between news-oriented medical weeklies such as the Lancet and the British Medical Journal and the more voluminous quarterly reviews.[2]

Medical Mirror 2

The journal’s opening address following its 1869 rebranding.

In May 1869, the Mirror rebranded itself, moving to a format which more closely resembled that of a magazine. Macgowan suggested that he had been advised to bring out the periodical ‘in a form more consistent with the progressive times we live in, and at a price more consistent with the modest earnings of the general practitioner’.[3] The cover price dropped to 4s per annum (it was previously priced at 12s).

Throughout its run, the journal proudly proclaimed its independence and commitment to representing the interests of rank-and-file medical practitioners. Its first address emphasised that it was ‘unfettered by the influence of any clique or individuals’ and ‘blinded by no feelings of animosity towards any other Medical Journal’. It affirmed: ‘we start upon neutral, and […] thoroughly independent grounds’.[4] It sought to differentiate itself from journals known for their bitter rivalries, such as the radical Lancet and conservative London Medical Gazette. In 1869, the rebranded Mirror reassured its readers that it remained progressive in outlook, that it had ‘always adopted a cosmopolitan platform – free from bigotry, cliquism, and intolerance’ and that it ‘advocated the rights of the many, and the principles of free-trade’. However, it acknowledged that its calls for medical reform had now become widely accepted among the profession and the public. The journal represented itself as an ‘organ of independent thought and progress, bound only by the happy rules of unsectarian Christianity’.[5]

The Mirror printed a range of articles relevant to the experiences of general practitioners. It enthusiastically promoted the cottage hospital movement, which it saw as a means of elevating the status of country doctors. In 1859, surgeon Albert Napper converted a cottage into a hospital in Surrey. This spearheaded a movement, which saw houses adapted into small, rural hospitals and dispensaries altered to include inpatient facilities. These cottage hospitals were modelled on provincial general hospitals but staffed by general practitioners.[6] The Mirror featured various articles on the movement, including a report by Napper which emphasised that the hospitals played a crucial role in ‘the alleviation of the sufferings of the poor’ and in raising the profile of the country practitioner. Recognising that a hospital appointment was ‘always considered a sufficient guarantee of high professional attainments’ among affluent private patients, Napper suggested that ‘in the absence of any such means of affording proof of his ability, the country surgeon is too frequently regarded with distrust’.[7] The Mirror valorised the role of rural and provincial general practitioners. In one article on ‘The Country Doctor and His Work’, it affirmed that, ‘[t]here should be no better friend to the public than the man who, at all times, in all seasons, is ready to risk his own life in trying to save theirs’.[8]

Significantly, the journal also became interested in women’s rights under the auspices of its final editor, whose identity unfortunately remains unknown. When Macgowan was at the helm, the Mirror had commented on women’s education in the US. It expressed concern that in Boston, where ‘the rights of women have been for some time fully recognised’, the birth rate was steadily diminishing. It cautioned that women should not ‘neglect a department of usefulness for which Nature has peculiarly fitted them’, a reference to childrearing.[9] Under the next editor, the journal adopted a more liberal agenda and became an early supporter of the medical woman movement in Britain. An editorial on ‘Female Physicians’ maintained that ‘women have a perfect right to every facility for the study of medicine now enjoyed by men’. This article positioned the Mirror as more progressive than its contemporaries. It derided the BMJ for its ‘medieval notions concerning women’ and the Medical Times and Gazette for its ‘pseudo-scientific dogmas’ about women’s ‘physical and mental capacity’.[10]

This interjection was part of a broader sympathy for women’s rights which emerged in the journal. Another piece scathingly suggested that a BMJ journalist read ‘J.S. Mill’s judicious, enlightened, and enlightening work on the “The Subjection of Women”’, and the journal stridently opposed the ‘degrading and demoralizing influence’ of the Contagious Diseases Acts.[11] Since the Mirror ceased publication in 1870, we cannot know whether this positive coverage of the woman question would have been sustained. Perhaps the journal’s increasingly bold and liberal stance rendered it unpopular with medical readers and ultimately contributed to its demise.

[1] [Untitled], Medical Mirror, 1 September 1869, p. 113.

[2] ‘Address’, Medical Mirror, January 1864, pp. 1-3.

[3] ‘Address to the Readers of the Medical Mirror’, Medical Mirror, 1 May 1869, p. 3.

[4] ‘Address’, p. 3.

[5] ‘Address to the Readers’, p. 3.

[6] For a history of the cottage hospital movement see Steven Cherry, ‘Change and Continuity in the Cottage Hospitals c. 1859-1948: The Experience in East Anglia’, Medical History, 36 (July 1992), 271-89.

[7] Albert Napper, ‘On the Advantages Desirable to the Medical Profession and to the Public from the Establishment of Village Hospitals’, Medical Mirror, January 1864, pp. 20-4 (p. 22).

[8] ‘The Country Doctor and his Work’, Medical Mirror, 1 November 1870, p. 195.

[9] ‘The Rights of Women’, Medical Mirror, August 1866, p. 506.

[10] ‘Notes and Comments: Female Physicians’, Medical Mirror, 1 December 1869, p. 173.

[11] ‘Notes and Comments: Syphilography for Ladies’, Medical Mirror, 1 November 1869, p. 154. ‘Prostitution: The Contagious Diseases Acts’, Medical Mirror, 1 November 1869, pp.  155-7 (p. 157).

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