Dosage and the Impact of Gender


Following on from our last post on Dosage and the Impact of Age, we have decided to focus on alterations of dosage based on gender. Historiographical debates have so far centred around dissection and the limited opportunities for formal education for women. According to N.D Jewson, dissection in the early modern period was ‘widely regarded as an insult to the body’ (1). This means that domestic medical healers, who were often women, would have had limited knowledge about the workings of the body due to a lack of dissection. Further research on women’s lack of knowledge can be found in Doreen Evenden’s work which suggests that it was ‘unthinkable’ for women to attend dissections held by the Barber-Surgeons company (2). This could be because in 1745 the Company of Surgeons became a separate organisation from the Barber-Surgeons. Making the distinction between the two companies more formal could have made it harder for women to access professional medical education due to contemporary ideals about gender roles. Both arguments make alterations of dosage based on gender, such as those found in receipt books compiled by Sarah Jackson (The director: or, Young woman’s best companion published in 1754 & 1755), surprising. These receipt books counter the arguments historians have proposed on formal medical knowledge by giving advice to readers (who were most likely women) about how to alter dosage based on gender without professional medical expertise.

Jackson’s compilation of medical and culinary receipts includes one noticeable medical receipt which mentions altering the dosage based on gender. The receipt For the Yellow-Jaundice is interesting because it recommends altering the amount of ingredients in the treatment based purely on gender. The advice of ‘eleven sows, or Wood- Lice if they be large, (if small, thirteen)’ for a man and ‘nine large Wood-Lice, or eleven small ones’ for a woman shows an understanding of the differences between male and female anatomy. This contrasts Jewson’s argument that there was a lack of understanding about the body (3). By acknowledging that the receipt may need altering for men, it assumes that the reader has basic knowledge about the human anatomy. The inclusion of this receipt could suggest that domestic healers (notably women) were, by the eighteenth-century, becoming more aware of the need to experiment with the quantities of ingredients used in treatments.


Notably, alongside recommendations to change the quantity of ingredients based on gender, the receipt also gives instructions about the size of woodlice needed. If this alteration is read in line with Alisha Rankin’s argument that writing a receipt ‘encompassed the knowledge of all the properties of a remedy’s ingredients’, it seems the Yellow-Jaundice receipt can suggest more about knowledge of dosage and measurements than first appears (4).  We could see the inclusion of precise, standardised amounts of ingredients and dosage as evidence of attempting to create an efficacious result. After undertaking a comparative study of the 1754 and 1755 editions of Sarah Jackson’s book, we found an increase in the number of standardised receipts from 58% in 1754 to 62% in 1755. Equally, there was a decrease in the amount of non-standardised measurements used in receipts from 42% in the 1754 edition to 40% in 1755. This illustrates progression to a more standardised set of receipts with measurements such as ounces, drams, grains, pints and quarts becoming more commonly used in the 1755 edition. Despite appearing in both editions of Jackson’s compilation, the receipt doesn’t follow this trend of increasing standardisation. Perhaps this is because the receipt instead gives instructions on the size of ingredients rather than giving a standard measurement. Just like standardised measurements show concerns about the receipt being reproducible, the alteration based on size shows an understanding of the problems the receipt could cause to readers trying to follow the instructions.

The clear instructions given in terms of ingredients can also be found in advice on dosage. The receipt recommends taking the treatment for three days, ‘then forbear three mornings, and then do it for three mornings again’ (5). The cyclical nature of the dosage repetition could be linked with Galenic principles which show a connection between bodily cycles and astrology. Taking a more straightforward approach, we could simply see the cycle of dosage as a way to advise healers to alter the dosage as they see necessary. This links with ideas already covered in Dosage and the Impact of Circumstance.

By looking at alterations in ingredients and dosage based on gender, the receipt For the Yellow-Jaundice shows that formal medical education was not required to administer effective medical treatments. In the receipt books we have chosen to study, Jackson is unique in recommending different dosages based on gender. Even though, as Doreen Evenden states, ‘licensed women were expected to only practice on women’, the receipt shows a basic understanding of how to treat both sexes (6).  This could be down to an increase in female participation in medical experimentation.

(1) N. D. Jewson, Medical Knowledge and the Patronage System in 18th Century England, Sociology (1974)

(2) Doreen A Evenden, Gender Differences in the Licensing and Practice of Female and Male Surgeons in Early Modem England, Medical History (1998)

(3) Sarah Jackson, The director: or, Young woman’s best companion (1754)

(4) Alisha Rankin, Becoming an Expert Practitioner: Court Experimentalism and the Medical Skills of Anna of Saxony (1532-1585), Isis (2007)

(5) Jackson (1754)

(6) Evenden (1998)