Notes from the Rare Book Room: Healing by laying on of hands, 1628-1683

Although born in Ireland, Valentine Greatrakes was English, his ancestors having settled there in the late sixteenth century. In 1641, the family was forced to flee England during an Irish revolt. He was privately educated in theology and the humanities in Devon where the family lived. When he was nineteen, Greatrakes returned to Ireland, determined to regain what he could of his father’s estate. About four years after he regained his estate, Greatrakes “had an Impulse, or a strange perswasion . . . that God had given me the blessing of curing the Kings-Evil”, also known as scrophula. His method was to use his hands to stroke the affected part. His successes were such that he was soon charged with practicing medicine without a license but he countered that, since he charged no fee, he needed no license. Although forbidden to heal, he continued as before and eventually was stroking for all manner of complaints. He effected many cures, achieved great popularity, and was even called upon by Charles II to exercise his powers on three patients from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. After his 1666 tour of England , he returned to live quietly in Ireland and cure those who came to his door. The highlighted tract was written in response to charges contained in a pamphlet by David Lloyd (1635-1692) which attacked his morals and techniques. Greatrakes prepared this small book to answer those criticisms and certify the validity of his cures. Essentially prepared as a letter to Robert Boyle, the book contains, in addition to the autobiographical introduction, over fifty letters from individuals, public figures, patients, churchmen, physicians, and Fellows of the Royal Society testifying to the success of his cures.