Q From : I remember discussions we once had on a Patrick O’Brian list about his use of the word marthambles for a disease. We spent much time looking for its origin and meaning but couldn’t uncover it. Did he make it up?
A The author Patrick O’Brian rarely invented words, as he was a careful and accurate researcher of all matters maritime and medical, though he did have an impish sense of humour. He seems to have been rather fond of marthambles, using it in six of his naval stories about Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin.
He asked ‘How is our fourth man?’ meaning Abse, a member of the afterguard, whose complaint was known as the marthambles at sea and griping of the guts by land, a disease whose cause Stephen did not know and whose symptoms he could only render more nearly bearable by opiates: he could not cure it.
The Nutmeg of Consolation, by Patrick O’Brian, 1991.
However, O’Brian is seriously inconsistent. In The Surgeon’s Mate, he says Maturin “had cured Mrs Broad, the landlady and an excellent plain cook, of the marthambles” and in Desolation Island the crew says he similarly cured Prince Billy of it (this is presumably Prince William Frederick, great-nephew of George III, widely known as Silly Billy). Another surgeon claims in The Wine-Dark Sea that the disease is “as deadly as measles or the smallpox to islanders”. We are left ignorant of the nature of the ailment and how serious it really is. There’s a good reason for that — it’s not a real disease.
Other examples of the word are on record. Dorothy Dunnett included it in her historical novel The Ringed Castle of 1971. It also turns up in an article on quackery in the issue of the American Medical Gazette for May 1859. It quotes a seventeenth-century medical faker named Tom Jones, whose words were reproduced in The Harangues or Speeches of Several Famous Mountebanks in Town and Country of 1690:
These quacks may fitly be called soliniates, because they prescribe only one kind of physic, for all distempers: that is, a vomit. If a man has bruised his elbow, take a vomit, says the doctor. If you have any corns, take a vomit. If he has torn his coat, take a vomit. For the jaundice, fever, flux, gripes, gout, — nay, even the distempers that only my friend the famous Dr. Tuff, whom you all know, knows as the hocognicles, marthambles, the moonpauls, and the strongfives, — a vomit; tantum.
I can find no other example of soliniate; tantum is medical Latin from tantus, meaning “so much”.
The “famous Dr Tuff” must be the same mountebank that O’Brian refers to in an interview printed in the Patrick O’Brian Newsletter in March 1994:
Marthambles is a very fine word that I found in a quack’s pamphlet of the late 17th or early 18th century advising a nostrum that would cure not only ‘the strong fires’ and a whole variety of more obvious diseases but the marthambles too. I have never seen it anywhere else and it has escaped the OED.
Strong fires is a misprint for strong fives, which appears in three of Patrick O’Brian’s books.
It turns out, with the help of C J S Tompson’s The Quacks of Old London of 1928, that Dr Tuff was really Dr Tufts. Tufts produced a pamphlet in 1675 that has several times been reproduced:
There is newly arrived from his travels, a gentleman, who, after above forty years’ study, hath, by a wonderful blessing on his endeavours, discovered, as well the nature as the infallible cure of several strange diseases, which (though as yet not known to the world) he will plainly demonstrate to any ingenious artist, to be the greatest causes of the most common distempers incident to the body of man. The names of which take as follow: The strong fives, The marthambles, The moon-pall, The hockogrocle. Now, though the names, natures, symptoms, and several cures of these diseases, are altogether unknown to our greatest physicians, and the particular knowledge of them would (if concealed) be a vast advantage to the aforesaid person; yet, he well knowing that his country’s good is to be preferred to his private interest, doth hereby promise all sorts of people, a faithful cure of all or any of the diseases aforesaid, at as reasonable rates as our modern doctors have for that of any common distemper.
As quoted in Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, by Edmund Fillingham King, 1860. King slightly modified the spelling and orthography of the original.
Marthambles — later also spelled markambles — was an invention by Dr Tufts to frighten patients into paying for his useless nostrums. He wasn’t alone in his trickery — others in the same period created the bonny scrubs, the glimmering of the gizzard, the quavering of the kidneys, and the wambling trot as ailments worthy of their well-paid attention.
Patrick O’Brian slyly bamboozled his readers with his various statements about its nature. Fair enough, it was mythical, after all. But I wonder at his failure to borrow hockogrocle.