Friday, May 15, 2015

John Gowland: Apothecary and Impromptu Dermatologist

The birth date and immediate familial relations of John Gowland are both unknown. He appears to be the grandson of Ralph Gowland, a distinguished attorney and antiquary of Durham, and cousin to Ralph Gowland, the MP of Durham and Cockermouth. Moving away from the traditional family path into law, Gowland chose to study herbs and medicine. It is likely he was the apprentice of an apothecary in York, John Marsden, in September of 1720. His notable medicinal skills captured the attention of Frederick, Prince of Wales, who secured him the position of apothecary in his royal household.  
            Gowland took his role in the world of medicine seriously. His personal and professional integrity led him to be grossly irritated by outdated medical ideas, such as those that blamed ailments on “impure blood.” He had little patience for court physicians who stuck to these ideas and were eager to prescribe sudorifics, to make the patient sweat out the ailment, blood purges, or emetics, used to induce vomiting, since all of these methods were ineffective.
Gowland’s true notoriety began with the predicament of Elizabeth Chudleigh, a maid of honor for Augusta, Princess of Wales. After being appointed to her position is 1743, Elizabeth became acutely aware of the importance of maintaining a fresh and youthful appearance, especially in regards to her skin. When her skin broke out in blotches and blemishes, she consulted the court doctors who prescribed her several treatments, such as sea-bathing and purging, which did nothing to clear her skin. Gowland, however, came up with a different solution. A pamphlet released by Thomas Vincent in 1793 claimed, “An idea, having formerly prevailed, that these eruptions [of the skin] proceeded from some morbidity in the blood, it became necessary for Mr. Gowland in his life to do away with these errors” (Vincent and Dickinson, 3). Gowland noticed a significant clogging in Elizabeth's pores due to make-up and other sorts of paint that she had been using to disguise her imperfect skin. He created what would become known as Gowland’s lotion, a scrub to be used daily on the face, hands, legs, etc., that would remove a layer of skin, including freckles, in order to reveal a clear, fresh layer beneath. Although somewhat successful in this aspect, the potent effect of the lotion can be attributed to bitter almonds, sugar, and trace amounts of a corrosive, sulfuric derivative. This peeling away of a layer of skin led John Corry to remark,
There's the lotion of Gowland that flays ladies' faces,
Distorting the features of our modern graces.” (Corley)

            Nevertheless, this did not deter the ladies of the court. Elizabeth Chudleigh’s success story inspired society to reach out to the now famous apothecary for his effective solution. During this lifetime, Gowland refused to advertise his lotion in the press, which required his buyers to have some sort of personal recommendation in order for him to admit them into his “shop” on Bond Street. Although his circle of buyers was somewhat limited due to this, it was not an issue. His lotion sold for 10s. 6d. for a quart sized bottle and helped him create a small fortune. The specifics of his legacy are unclear but he was a property owner by the later years of his life and had “23,000 out in personal loans” (Corley). Gowland’s notoriety led him to be appointed as apothecary for George III in 1760, a post in which he remained until his death in 1776.
            Gowland had married at some point in his life a woman named Elizabeth but the couple would have no children. The fortune Gowland had accumulated over his life would be passed on as legacies to his cousins Ralph and Thomas Gowland. His secret formula passed into the hands of Thomas Vincent, who had been a close friend to Gowland as well as an oboist in the king’s band and clerk to the music closet. Gowland passed away in Bath on 3 August 1776 (almost a month after the America colonies declared independence) and Vincent took over the lotion business.
Unfortunately, the lotion business began to decline after the inventor’s death. Vincent, having married a woman named Marie Elizabeth, began to receive trouble when she began creating her own version of lotion while her husband was abroad. Leaving their house at Davies Street in London, Vincent attempted to put her out of business by setting up shop with Robert Dickinson, his son in law, at 55 Long Acre. In contrast to the original proprietor, Vincent began to advertise the lotion and create a venue of retailers in London willing to sell the product. Vincent and his wife battled each other in the press with different pamphlets, each claiming to sell a product better at diminishing freckles and curing complexions than the other. Marie Elizabeth’s counterfeit won out after her husband’s death in 1800 and his partner’s lack of motivation. 
Marie Elizabeth Vincent's Advertisement
Vincent and Dickinson's Advertisement (1793)

Gowland was doomed to fade into oblivion along with most fads but managed to avoid this fate due to Jane Austen. In Austen’s 1818 novel Persuasion, her character Anne is noted by her father as “less thin in her person, in her cheeks; her skin, her complexion, greatly improved; clearer, fresher.” He goes on to recommend Gowland and state, “the constant use of Gowland, during the spring months. Mrs Clay has been using it at my recommendation, and you see what it has done for her. You see how it has carried away her freckles” (Austen). Whether Austen was aware of the product due to the pamphlets constantly appearing in the press or due to a distant relation she shared with Gowland, this simple paragraph would forever tie John Gowland to the “pleasant and effectual” remedy he created. 

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1818. e-Book.
Corley, T. A. B.. “Gowland, John (d. 1776).” T. A. B. Corley In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman, January 2008. (accessed May 15, 2015).          
Dickinson and Vincent. On the power and effects of Gowland’s lotion. London: printed for the proprietors, and entered at Stationer’s- Hall, 1793.

1 comment:

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