200 Years On, We Should Remember Why Medicine Was Central To The Poetry of John Keats

Youssef El-Gingihy
6 min readFeb 23, 2021

When I left Oxford for the urban heap of London, I found myself retracing the footsteps of Romantic poet and Guy’s medical alumnus John Keats.

On Sunday 1 October 1815, Keats enrolled as student №189 at the Counting House of Guy’s Hospital. The next nine months at Guys would alter his life. Keats planned to study there for a year and then apply for membership in the Royal College of Surgeons. Contrary to later rumours, Keats did well enough to earn a ‘dressership’ at Guy’s for the new year. Only 12 dressers were chosen from 700 students. Keats took lodgings at 28 St Thomas Street sharing with 3 older students. Keats attended, just as Shakespeare did, the bear-baitings in Borough as well as going to cock fights and boxing matches.

Keats’s poetry, as with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, charts the transitional period between boyhood and manhood. Keats was aware that this was the project of his work as he made clear in the preface to Endymion and the letter in which he uses the mansion of chambers as a metaphor for life. Keats, however, never completed the journey, dying of tuberculosis before he reached full maturity. It is perhaps part of the reason (along with class snobbery) why his celebrated contemporary Byron disliked Keats. Whilst Byron cultivated an image of himself as a man’s man, he perceived Keats to be immature. Byron was particularly vituperous in his hostility branding the density of sensory imagery in Keats’s poetry as “mental masturbation” and venomously dismissing “Johnny Keats’s piss-a-bed poetry” as well as his sexual immaturity. I guess that’s a testosterone-charged measure of Keats.

Intimations of mortality pervade Keats’s poetry. Keats had seen both his mother and younger brother Tom die of tuberculosis. Long before he became gravely ill, he complained of a cough and a sore throat. The nightingale in the celebrated ode is blessed with what Keats can never have — the ability to sing ‘of summer in full-throated ease.’

In March 1816, Keats began work as a dresser. He was assigned to ‘Billy’ Lucas Jr, a notoriously incompetent surgeon whose operations were ‘very badly performed and accompanied by much bungling if not worse’. Keats was required to dress wounds, change…