13 November 2013

Sir Walter Farquhar on Pitt's drinking

Sir Walter Farquhar, Pitt’s physician for 11 years, gave an account - of which I won’t quote it all here - of Pitt’s health. Farquhar also considers the reasons for Pitt’s premature death. This is printed at the end of Lord Rosebery’s (ed.) (1900) The Love Episode of William Pitt.
In considering Pitt’s health, these particular passages stood out to me as they relate to Farquhar’s views on Pitt’s drinking:

"The very early period in which Mr. Pitt engaged in Public Affairs certainly tended to stretch Nature beyond her accustomed limits, & he wanted Constitutional Stamina to support him through the trying scenes of political Life. The mind was constantly acting upon a weak frame of body, & exhaustion was the consequence of this sympathetic action…The early habit of the too free use of Wine operated unquestionably to weaken the Powers of the Stomach, & thereby to impede its natural & salutary Functions, on which the vigor of the Constitution depends. I therefore recommended dilution with water, which appeared for a time to be attended with good effects; but debility was perpetually calling for new aids & new props, which gave only temporary relief, & at last lost their efficacy (p.47-8)."
At the very end of Sir Walter’s account, in 1816 Lord Liverpool also decided to pass his judgement on Pitt’s health. He wrote this the year after Napoleon’s final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, so Liverpool had the benefit of hindsight and victory on his side.

I’m not quoting the entire passage here, just Liverpool’s verdict on whether or not Pitt’s life could have been prolonged by retiring from public life:

"I doubt very much whether Retirement would have materially prolonged his [Pitt’s] Life - that is Retirement attended by the contemplation of the misfortunes of his Country, & of the want of the success of those exertions which he was entitled to suppose might have led to a very different result. If he had fortunately lived to this day, the case would have been very different, & he might have quitted office with the natural hope of passing some years in a reasonable state of health & comfort (p. 50)."

It’s useless to speculate, but I suppose Liverpool has a point there.


Rosebery (ed.) (1900) The Love Episode of William Pitt. London: John Murray, pp. 47-8, 50.

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