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Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733)

Bernard Mandeville was born into a family of doctor-magistrates in Rotterdam, where his father was a board member of a hospital. Attending Leiden, where he studied medicine, Mandeville graduated three months after Herman Boerhaave. Soon after, he departed for London, where he established a medical practice.

The religious motivations of hospital builders and subscribers have been emphasised since the first hospitals were constructed. The physician and philosopher Bernard Mandeville was one of the first explicitly to point out the importance of other motivations in hospital construction. Mandeville was deeply suspicious of all human motives. For example, he held the view that moral virtue had little or nothing to do with whether people called themselves Christians. In his famous satirical poem, The Fable of the Bees (1714), he further exclaimed that ‘No Calling was without Deceit’. He also suggested that ‘university learning is irrelevant to curing patients’. Mandeville also argued that medicine should be learned from experience, an approach learnt during his Leiden training.

In a subsequent attack on the charity school movement in England, he began to question the motives of governors and masters. Charity schools, he suggested, were not really founded on true acts of charity, but with the aim of gaining honour and public respect. So, too, were other charitable institutions. ‘Pride and Vanity’, he famously declared, ‘have built more Hospitals than all the Virtues together.’

Despite donors’ motivations, Mandeville demonstrated that private vices could still be transformed into public benefits. Hospitals, for example, provided medical care for the poor and returned many to work. However, he also suggested that such gifts occasionally did more harm than good. Rather than encouraging industry and self-reliance, charities could promote sloth and idleness.

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Bibliography

S Cavallo, ‘Charity, power and patronage in eighteenth-century hospitals: the case of Turin’, in L Granshaw and R Porter (eds), The Hospital in History (London: Routledge, 1989)

H J Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)

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