Cartwright, Frederick (Fox) 1909-2001

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CARTWRIGHT, Frederick (Fox) 1909-2001


Born May 18, 1909; died November 22, 2001.


King's College Hospital Medical School, London, England, head of history and medicine department. Anesthetist, author, teacher, and medical consultant.


Royal Society of Medicine (president of historical section, 1975-77).


The English Pioneers of Anaesthesia, J. Wright (Bristol England), 1952.

Joseph Lister, The Man Who Made Surgery Safe, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1963.

The Development of Modern Surgery, Crowell (New York, NY), 1967.

(With Michael D. Biddiss) Disease and History, Crowell (New York, NY), 1972, 2nd edition, Sutton, 2000.

A Social History of Medicine, Longman (New York, NY), 1977.


Frederick Cartwright was trained as an anesthetist and practiced for seven years before becoming an anesthetic consultant. He was also a distinguished clinical teacher at King's College Hospital, in London, but he is best remembered for his contribution to the study of the history of medicine.

Cartwright first became interested in the history of medicine while he was teaching, and he eventually created a course in the history of medicine, which he taught for several years before he retired in 1971. He also was instrumental in the formation of a small department of the history of medicine at King's College Hospital Medical School, for which he served as head. His involvement in this study eventually led, after his retirement from teaching and practice, to his becoming the president of the historical section of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1975 to 1977.

In addition to his duties as teacher and his medical practice, Cartwright wrote several books. He began his writing with his 1952 publication, The English Pioneers of Anaesthesia. From there, he wrote a short biography of Joseph Lister (1827-1912), a surgeon who is credited with the first use of antiseptics after surgery to prevent infection of the wound. Joseph Lister, The Man Who Made Surgery Safe was published in 1963.

It would not be until 1972 that Cartwright would write the book for which he would be best remembered. His Disease and History was read by those interested in medicine and also enjoyed by a more general readership, causing the book to be revised and reprinted. In a review of the new edition, Frank McLynn, writing for the New Statesman, called Cartwright's work an "absorbing and lucid study." McLynn pointed out that one of the reasons for this book having a general readership is the fact that Cartwright demonstrates how disease has almost certainly influenced major calamities in the history of the world. For example, "The Black Death in the 14th century almost halved the country's population over 30 years.… It undermined the feudal system in England, cut the peasantry's ties to the land, weakened the hold of the Church and may have opened the way for the Reformation."

Other historical events Cartwright expounds on in his book include the victory of Cortez in Mexico due to the spread of smallpox among the native people. The European disease, when introduced, reduced the native forces to less then one-twelfth of its original population of twenty-five million, thus giving Cortez an unfair advantage. Looking at disease from another perspective, Cartwright demonstrates how the ability and scientific knowledge of the British Empire allowed explorers to penetrate and eventually colonize Africa because they had discovered a way to protect themselves from malaria and other tropical diseases.

In a review of Disease and History a writer for Publishers Weekly proclaimed that the author's "scholarship is impeccable and extensive in this … study." However, the same reviewer also stated that although the study is fascinating, the book contains "more scholarship than most readers will embrace." In contrast, a reviewer for Choice described the book as "a most readable survey on the influence of disease in shaping history."

Cartwright went on to write another book, A Social History of Medicine, published in 1978, which Jeanne L. Brand, writing for the magazine Science, described as a well-written study intended for general readership. Brand added, "It is authoritatively written, makes excellent use of contemporary sources to brighten the narrative, and includes reading lists giving some of the major secondary sources." In this book, Cartwright examines the philosophy of medicine up to the mid-nineteenth century; the history of widespread and deadly diseases such as smallpox, bubonic plague, and cholera; as well as the affects of alcohol, syphilis, and tuberculosis on major populations, such as in Great Britain. A Social History of Medicine was the last book Cartwright published. He died on November 22, 2001, at the age of ninety-two.



Choice, February, 1973, review of A Social History of Medicine, p. 1623.

New Statesman, March 20, 2000, Frank McLynn, review of A Social History of Medicine, pp. 55-56.

Publishers Weekly, May 1, 1972, review of A Social History of Medicine, p. 46.

Science, November 10, 1978, Jeanne L. Brand, review of A Social History of Medicine, p. 622.

Times Literary Supplement, August 4, 1972, review of A Social History of Medicine, p. 922.*