Mary Trye and the Chymical Physicians of the Restoration

I was sent a link to a lecture that sounds very interesting but is framed in a way that I find slightly misleading, so I wanted to take this out and talk about it. I think it’s one of those times you can see why I say you should question everything. The organizers of this lecture are putting an interesting spin on this little bit of history that really doesn’t hold up.

Mary Trye was the daughter of Thomas O’ Dowde who attended King Charles II
as one of his elite grooms of the chamber.  Her grandfather was an Irish Catholic and so her the family’s financial situation was undoubtedly precarious.  A lot of them lost their shirts during the Cromwell years.  O’ Dowde appeared to have been involved in a great deal of political intrigue, but he was still plenty well educated and well-connected. 

The Restoration had been kind to O’Dowde. He had been granted a royal license to practice medicine and had a laboratory in his residence situated in a nice area of London near St. Clements in the Strand. O’Dowde even applied for a royal charter for the Society of Chymical Physicians to form its own guild, but the physician’s guild intervened and prevented it. This is a good opportunity though to introduce the chymical physicians by referring you to a succinct free resource that brings you up to speed on them.

A letter written by O’Dowde shortly before his death could be interpreted as him trying to curry some favor with the King for himself and his fellow Chymical Physicians as he frames them as the valiant group of plague fighters who persisted when all the other medical providers fled.  There is also this advertisement that lists O’ Dowde as one of the chymical physicians offering a plague cure. That didn’t work out so well for him. He contracted the plague and died in 1665. Trye, having been trained by her father, inherited his practice upon his death.[i]

O’ Dowde seemed quite proud of his status as a licensed physician as it is mentioned in both documents written by him and preserved on EEBO. It’s also mentioned that he was a Royal Licentiate on the front plate of Trye’s book, Medicatrix, or the Woman Physician.

I’ve never been too into researching chemical physicians. He was on my radar from when I was doing some research on ship’s medicine, but I hadn’t heard the “unlicensed” spin before. I think the folks putting on the lecture are confusing not being a member of the Royal College of Physicians with not being licensed.

It was a trend for a while for Chymical Physicians and Humoral Physicians to publish incendiary books poking at one another. George Thomson’s Galeno-pale, or, A chymical trial of the Galenists published in 1665 is another example of a chymical physician taking on “the man.” Before you start to think to highly of them though, they were as likely as their “learned” competitors of the Royal College to rip on someone with less education as we see in George Starkey’s pill vindicated from the unlearned alchymist and all other pretenders printed in 1660.

I wanted to write about it because it’s kind of the beginning of an age long struggle between different professional groups using scare tactics to undermine consumer confidence and win a bigger share of the market.

Back to Mary, though. I like her. A good deal of her book pushes back against phlebotomy and she’s not wrong that chemical medicines would eventually be found to be more efficacious than bloodletting. I found myself really identifying with her when she said that she is not convinced “every Author that writes of Medicines understands them.” (Medicatrix p 74)

Despite what you might have read female medical practitioners were not unheard of throughout history. During the Classical Era. Roman emperor Julius Caesar passed a law that gave tax incentives and sometimes citizenship to wealthy families who educated sons and daughters to be physicians. At the Salernitan medical school, there were female professors who were collectively referred to as the mulieres Salernitanae, most of whom were born to physicians and trained and educated by them.

The path to being a practicing medical professional in the early modern era 
was not as cut-and-dried as it is modernly. While women were not allowed to study medicine in universities, some who were daughters of the wealthier class were educated at home and trained via apprenticeship by fathers or husbands who were professional guild members.

These professionals might have been uneducated in the eyes of the Royal College of Physicians but to say they were entirely without learning exhibits a type of
class blindness, which is common among historians and should be addressed. Many noted medical practitioners of the time, including Nicholas Culpeper, were considered “uneducated” by the uber-elite of the Royal College of Physicians, but he was still considered a physician in London society.

Monica Green has estimated that there were approximately 60 women professional healthcare providers in London in 1560.[2] The apothecary guild admitted women who had apprenticed in family shops and could pass the admittance test. Widows were allowed to assume the surgical practices of their husbands[3] or to continue to own and operate their husband’s apothecary.[4]

Furthermore, any woman who could read and write was most often a member of
the wealthier classes.  The fact that our manuscript receipt book authors could read and write at all is an indication that they held a privileged place in society, and they certainly were not members of the laboring classes. While a few women, such as Hannah Wooley, accessed a bit of education working for wealthy families, that was not the case

While Mary might not have been educated in the sense that she attended university, the very fact that she could write this pamphlet singles her out as a member of the educated elite as does the dedication in which she speaks of having a close relationship with Jane Lane, Lady Fisher who was a favorite of Charles II as she smuggled him out of the country as one of her servants when Charles I was executed.

I think it’s important to keep a clear understanding of these issues because when we speak of a member of the learned elite as a common person, it often contributes to the cultural erasure of the poor and laboring classes in history.


[i] ‘O’Dowde, Thomas. ‘Two Letters Concerning the Cure of the Plague the One to Thomas Eliot Esq; on of the Grooms of the Bed Chamber to His Majesty, the Other the Mayor of the Town of Southampton, Both from Thomas O Dowd Esq, a Licensed Chymicall Physician, and One of the Grooms of the Chamber to His Majesty King Charles.’, EEBO-TCP Phase 2 2016.  &  Early Modern Practitioners ¬ Sample Data’. Accessed 20 February 2022.

[ii]. Green, Monica. ‘Women’s Medical Practice and Health Care in Medieval Europe’. Signs 14, no. 2 (1989): 434–73.

[iii]. Wirtzfeld, Debrah A. ‘The History of Women in Surgery’. Canadian Journal of Surgery 52, no. 4 (August 2009): 317–20. 

[iv] Woolf, Judith. ‘Women’s Business: 17th-Century Female Pharmacists’. Science History Institute, 10 October 2009.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website

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