William Macmichael’s The Gold-Headed Cane, originally published in 1827, is the imaginative “autobiography” of one particular gold-headed cane owned by five eminent physicians; several held high office in the Royal College of Physicians. Initially reviews criticized the book because it concentrated disproportionately on illnesses of the royalty and aristocracy, “though at the time, there was intense interest in Royal illnesses and death-beds.” Macmichael’s book became highly regarded, not least by both Osler and Cushing. It is “a book that all medical historians and scholarly physicians will treasure.”
The book tells of the adventures of the famous cane, successively in the possession of Radcliffe, Mead, Askew, William and David Pitcairn, and Matthew Baillie. Then in 1824 it was retired to a glass case in the library of the Royal College of Physicians. In Macmichael’s quirky book the cane itself relates a series of biographies and consultations of these and other famous physicians of the day. But rather than describing generally the physicians and practices of that time, it portrays the vagaries of the medical encounters with royalty and the aristocracy in eighteenth century England.