Dr Joshua Ward, the ‘Friar’s Balsam’ man

I recently came across an advert in the Newcastle Courant, 24 November 1744 for a product I recalled from childhood, ‘Friar’s Balsam’. I have a vague recollection of adding it to hot water to inhale to ease the symptoms of a cold.

No individual claimed ownership of the product in the advert, but simply stated that the original recipe had come from a Father Gervase Cartwright and was approved and recommended by several eminent physicians as the best family medicine in the world.

Fryar’s Balsam, as it was written at that time, was capable for curing a whole host of ailments – bruises – if applied immediately it would remove the blackness of the bruise. It helped to heal cuts and green wounds, but only if applied with a feather or bit of lint. ‘tis good medicine for coughs, colds or consumption, asthma, gout and rheumatics. For the intestines it could aid colic, flux, piles, pains in the bowels or stomach. It instantly healed chapped hands, soreness of the breasts or nipples and on the face, it would remove scabs caused by small pox. It was conveniently packaged so could be carried in the pocket when travelling.

Twenty or thirty drops taken in the morning on a lump of sugar, will fortify the stomach against the inclemency of the weather, and is far better than a dram. ‘Tis likewise used with equal success on horses, dogs and other creatures: a few drops will cure a horse’s back when gall’d, a broken knee, or any wound in the foot, whether occasioned by a nail or otherwise. Price One shilling each bottle, with proper direction for its use in each distemper.

The advert gave no indication where the product could be purchased from, leaving a potential buyer deprived of any clue as to where to obtain this amazing product!

It is said that Isaac Newton used it as early as 1660 when working in the apothecary shop in Grantham.

The first reference however, I have come across appeared in an essay, ‘The Physician’s Pulse Watch’ Volume 2 by the physician, John Floyer, dated 1710.

Joshua Ward. Wellcome Collection
Joshua Ward. Wellcome Collection

Whoever ‘invented’ it, Dr Joshua Ward appears to have been given credit for it, but my initial searches reveal that it wasn’t attributed to him until around 1760, which was some 50 years after it was referenced by Floyer. So, did he invent it, or did he simply sell it? We may never truly know the answer to that, but one thing we do know is that it still exists today, which perhaps shows how effective it has been to survive for over 300 years, still bearing its original name.

Who was Joshua Ward, or Dr Joshua Ward, as he was better known?

Joshua was the son of William and his wife, Mary, of Guisborough, Yorkshire, with William being the owner of an alum works. The couple had at least four other children, Margaret, Ann, William and the MP John Ward, who had a something of a reputation for being an unscrupulous businessman, but that’s another story. Joshua was presented for baptism at the parish church on 22 July 1686.

Little is known of Joshua’s early life, but The London Gazette, 25 January 1715, confirms that he was elected as the MP for Marlborough, Wiltshire, but following a petition, he was declared not to have been elected in 1717 at which time, he was said to have fled to France, where he remained under the radar until about 1730.

According to the ODNB, it was whilst in France, Joshua was said to have invented the medicines, known as Ward’s Pill and Ward’s Drop.

Dr Misaubin and Dr Ward c1730
Dr Misaubin and Dr Ward c1730

The next reference to Joshua was about 1730 as can be seen in this portrait above in the Royal Collection.

In 1734, his name appeared in the Grub Street Journal as ‘dispenser of the famous pill and powder’, but still it made no mention of the balsam. The following year Joshua purchased a piece of land near to Buckingham House to erect a hospital for the poor.  Joshua raised funds from the nobility to fund this, including the likes of the Duke of Devonshire.

He then spent the money on the building and according to the General Evening Post, 10 July 1735, plus upwards of £200 on beds alone as part of fitting it out.

Joshua Ward by Agostini Carlini, c 1760, Victoria and Albert Museum
Joshua Ward by Agostini Carlini, c 1760, Victoria and Albert Museum

It was the following year that his name became known at the court of King George II, when he was sent for to cure a woman said to be suffering from a bladder stone. He gave her one of his pills and she was immediately cured. He seems to have been able to cure most ailments known to man at that time, with newspapers providing witness testimonies to his skill. His success in this instance enhanced his reputation no end.

Of course, Joshua would have his critics, describing his cures as ‘quackery’, with accusations that he hired patients for half a crown a week and taught them how to simulate symptoms of a disease which he would immediately cure. Others, however, were fervent supporters of his work including the likes of Horace Walpole who was impressed by Joshua’s ability to cure a headache by using his ointment.

Joshua continued to work as a physician until his death on 21 November 1761, bequeathing the secret of his pills, to his friend and admirer, John Page, MP for Chichester. His body was removed from his house in Whitehall and taken to Westminster Abbey to be interred in the choir, as per his request in his will.

An announcement of Joshua’s death appeared in The Annual Register, 1761 including a brief obituary:

Joshua Ward, Esq, so well-known by the name Doctor Ward, died, at Whitehall, aged 76. This gentleman was formerly a member of the House of Commons; but on account of a particular affair, was obliged to go abroad, where he remained some years; but at last received his late majesty’s pardon. He then came to England, where, soon after his arrival, he purchase three houses at Pimlico, near St James’s park, which he converted into an hospital for his poor patients and very soon became so eminent in his profession by all ranks and degrees of people. Meeting with great success in his practice, and the poor from all parts flocking to him for relief, he took part of a house in Threadneedle Street, for the better distribution of his medicines to the poor, which he gave generously to all who asked his advice, that, as well as his house in Whitehall, was every day crowded with objects of charity, to who he always gave, with the greatest humanity, his medicines, and advice gratis, and often relieve them with money. Of late years he was particularly applied to by the nobility and gentry, even after they had been given over by regular physicians, upon which account he used facetiously to call himself the scanger of the faculty. And it was well known that many who have been pronounced dead have been restored to life by his medicines. So that all allow he richly merited the great fortune he died possessed of.

In Joshua’s will, he specified that he wished to be buried in Westminster Abbey, a wish that was carried out. He made provision for his sisters, Margaret and Ann £500 each; his servants each received between £50 and £100 each. His nephews Ralph and Thomas Ward who were also the executors received £1,000 each, but the lions share went to his great niece Rebecca Ward –£ 2,000, her father, Knox Ward having already died, as had Knox’s father, the MP John Ward.

The London Chronicle 25 February 1762 reported that a monument would be erected in Westminster Abbey, next to John Dryden, on which would be a fine bust of Joshua which was already in his possession.

According to the Caledonian Mercury, 17 November 1762:

It is said his majesty has offered £10,000 to the executors of the late Dr Joshua Ward, as a gratuity for their publishing the several receipts for making his medicines.


Horace Walpole’s Correspondence

Westminster Abbey website

Featured Image 

Joshua Ward Receiving Money from Britannia (and Bestowing it as Charity on the Needy) Thomas Bardwell (1704–1767) Hunterian Museum

12 thoughts on “Dr Joshua Ward, the ‘Friar’s Balsam’ man

    1. Sarah Murden

      I know, I hadn’t realised that it had been around as long as it had. I think there’s only limited suppliers now of it in it’s original form 🙂


    1. Sarah Murden

      Thanks Danielle, but despite Ward seeming to have invented it, there’s definitely references prior to that, so I think it’s even older than believed, which is really cool 🙂


  1. Jane

    Even raised people from the dead! Fascinating article. As an aside, I’m very curious as to why his statue has a middle button of his waistcoat undone. I know the fashion to leave the bottom button undone, but the middle button?


    1. Sarah Murden

      Thank you so much, Jane. I really hadn’t noticed the middle button being undone, well spotted! I’ve absolutely not idea, but given his size, I suspect that jacket might have simply been a tad too tight, so he simply left it unbuttoned, unless someone has a better suggestion.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dan

    My grandparents always had an old bottle of friar’s balsam in their medicine cabinet. In my childhood in the late 70’s it was used as a joke threat by my parents that if we scuffed our knee out playing, or got a small cut; that grandpa would get the ‘friars balsam out!’ I remember smelling it and it was pleasantly aromatic. 🙂


  3. As children, my sisters and I were often given Friars Balsam – both on a sugar lump, and also my mother had a sort of china kettle that you could put the Balsam in with boiling water – then you breathed up the steam through a pipe – the air coming in through another spout. I think I remember it being quite soothing, and wish you could get that piece of apparatus now – but they only sell rotten little plastic cups at the chemist for using with Vics.


    1. Sarah Murden

      I recall having it added to a bowl of water to inhale, with a towel over my head, so a similar effect presumably, but I’ve never heard of it being put on a sugar cube! Sometimes the old remedies are the best and I’m with you on the plastic cups 🙂


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