Posted by: Hourglass PJ14 MAR 2012
A recent visit to the National Botanic Garden of Wales reminded me of a story I have been interested in for several years, that of the physicians of Myddfai in Carmarthenshire who, according to an article by John Launer, in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine in 2005, were the founders of Britain’s longest medical dynasty. They can be traced back to the early 13th century and their line continued for over 500 years until the last of them, John Jones, died in 1739.
The first recorded name among them was Rhiwallon Feddyg, physician to the local lord Rhys Gryg (Rhys the Hoarse, or the Stammerer). Rhiwallon was followed by three sons — Cadwgan, Gruffyd and Einon.
Legend has it that Rhiwallon was the son of the beautiful woman of Llyn-y-fan, who arose from the lake near Myddfai as an apparition before a local farmer. Eventually the farmer won her hand in marriage but on the understanding that should he strike her three times without cause, she would disappear once more into the lake. Unfortunately, he did strike her three times, so the legend goes, and she left him only to return later to give her first born son Rhiwallon a bag full of medical prescriptions and a series of lessons in herbal remedies.
The physicians’ use of plant medicines is described in The Red Book of Hergest, a large vellum manuscript written in the Welsh language, which has survived from the late 14th century and can be found in Jesus College, Oxford. Unusually for European medicine at that time, according to Launer’s article, the recipes contain directions concerning the quantities and methods of preparation for the herbal ingredients.
An article by John Cule in the Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners in 1963 describes a further manuscript said to have been compiled by one of the earlier physicians called Hywel and copied by Iolo Morganwg in 1801, from which sources the Welsh Manuscript Society published an English translation in 1861.
Not all the contents of the book are thought to be the direct work of the physicians themselves. Some had formed part of the materia medica of Wales for generations before.
Most of the treatments are herbal remedies, but instructions are given for the treatment of haemorrhoids using surgery and the use of domestic fowl in the treatment of a tumour: “Take a cock or hen (as the patient may be a man or woman) and apply the rump, feathered, to the affected part until the bird dies. This will extract the venom.”
The young women of the day were apparently much admired for their white teeth and the doctors recommended hazel bark to maintain the pure whiteness.
The physicians of Myddfai were indeed general practitioners in every sense of the word.The National Botanic Garden of Wales has a herb garden named after them, which holds a collection of native plants.