University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

“Very Ill!” The Many Faces of Medical Caricature in Nineteenth-Century England & France

Caricature by definition is a representation in which the subject’s distinctive features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated to produce a comic or grotesque effect. Nineteenth-century medicine provided caricaturists with a wealth of material. Artists humorously exaggerated medical conditions and physical characteristics. Bulbous noses, protruding stomachs, and hunched backs were some of the more common features drawn to extraordinary proportions. Bizarre treatments, massive doses of pills, and excessive bloodletting, prescribed by trained physicians and quack doctors alike, were all lampooned. Suffering and discomfort from disease and the patient’s reaction to medical treatment were also fodder for the satirist’s pen.

While some caricatures were straightforward in their message, others contained yet another layer of meaning. Medical conditions could symbolize failed interpersonal relationships, national political affairs, and everything in between. Ailments caused by the follies of fashion, such as ill-fitting footwear or constricting corsets, inspired many drawings. Artists also directly linked illness to excesses in nineteenth-century social life, particularly over-consumption of food and alcohol.

The 37 caricatures displayed in this exhibit are divided into two groups: English and French. The English prints are predominately drawn by two of the more famous British caricaturists, James Gillray and George Cruikshank. The French caricatures include artwork by J.J. Grandville, Louis-Léopold Boilly, and Edme Jean Pigal.


Mary Wagner donated the caricatures in this exhibit to Historical Collections and Services, The Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. Her husband, the late Robert R. Wagner, M.D., collected these when he was a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institute for Medical Research in London from 1950 to 1951. Wagner was Chair of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Virginia from 1967 to 1994, and Director of the UVa Cancer Center from 1983 to 1993. Thanks to Mary Wagner’s generosity, the caricatures recently have been professionally treated, preserved, and reframed. The originals are on display in Historical Collections and Services and in the Department of Microbiology in the Robert R. Wagner Conference Room. These nineteenth-century satirical prints will thus continue to delight future generations.

This exhibit was written by Sara Huyser and Janet Pearson, members of the staff of Historical Collections and Services at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia. Steve Stedman designed the Web exhibit. Special thanks to Joan Echtenkamp Klein and Andrew Sallans for their assistance.

NOTICE: All images in this exhibit are the property of Historical Collections & Services of the Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia. Please contact a member of Historical Collections for permission to reproduce in any fashion images from the exhibit or to make comments or suggestions.