7 Tips for Spotting Samuel Johnson (On the Very Off-Chance He’s Still Alive)


Michael Rogalski

Doctor Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century British literary marvel who single-handedly wrote the 42,773-entry A Dictionary of the English Language, had no medical training. He never even completed a Ph.D. program—he just started calling himself “Doctor” after receiving an honorary "Doctor of Law" degree from Trinity College Dublin, and his friends followed his lead.

But it turns out that it was a fitting title. “Doctor” Johnson was obsessed with medicine and health, particularly his own. Over the course of his life, he came down with innumerable ailments, from the delightfully-named dropsy (an archaic term for the less delightfully named edema) to more common maladies like gout, indigestion, and smallpox. He spent much of his spare time experimenting with possible cures. He also critiqued articles in medical journals and offered tips to friends.

Johnson supposedly died on December 13, 1784 at the ripe old age of 75. But what if he didn’t? What if, thanks to all his self-cures and surgeries, he’s still wandering around in 2015? In the off-chance that’s true, here’s a field guide to spotting Doctor Samuel Johnson in the wild.


You might be able to identify Johnson based on his wit alone. He famously quipped, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” and “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” But his gesticulations and convulsions are likely the bigger giveaway. In conversation, Johnson often shook his head, moved his body back and forth, rubbed his left knee, clicked his tongue, whistled, and lost his breath while speaking. In fact, Johnson was rejected from two different schoolmaster positions because of these mannerisms. One headmaster worried that he’d “become the object of imitation or of ridicule among his pupils.”


Be on the lookout for squinting and inflamed eyes; the Doctor was subject to chronic conjunctivitis. He was born almost blind, and at the age of 2 had inflammation from a bout with tuberculosis that scarred his cornea—a nasty combination. One of his contemporaries noted that “his eyes, though of a light-grey colour, were so wild, so piercing, and at times so fierce, that fear was, I believe, the first emotion in the hearts of all his beholders.”


At nighttime, try searching for Johnson in nearby bars, rather than safely tucked in bed. Johnson’s probably there with dark circles under his eyes, surrounded by a large group of pals. He suffered from terrible insomnia, and would beg friends to stay up with him and keep him company. But Johnson himself would be chugging tea instead of beer. To compensate for his perpetual exhaustion, he would drink up to 40 cups of tea a day. Once, when a visitor came, they pointed out that Johnson had already had 11 cups of tea—to which Johnson responded “Sir, I did not count your glasses of wine; why should you count my cups of tea?”


One telltale sign is the gold amulet around Johnson’s neck, a gift from Queen Anne. When Johnson was very young he developed scrofula, a kind of tuberculosis of the lymph nodes that left his neck swollen, disfigured, and covered in nasty sores. At the time, royalty was reputed to possess the ancient divine rite of healing, and just a touch from the monarch could supposedly cure you—a narrative that was no doubt useful in helping the Queen secure her political power. Johnson’s mother became a believer and she shuttled Baby Sam to London to have his afflicted body part touched by the monarch. Needless to say, the sores remained. Johnson did get a nice piece of jewelry out of the encounter, however.


There’s a good chance Johnson’s legs might be swollen up to immense proportions thanks to “dropsy,” also known as edema. If they are, he’s probably chowing down on squill, a diuretic herbal remedy that looks a little like an onion. Johnson once ate enough squill to cause him to urinate 22 pints of liquid over the course of one day, relieving him of both pain and swelling. Johnson, however, overlooked the squill in his thank you speech, attributing his voluminous pee to a miracle.


Don’t be worried if your Johnson candidate has needle marks running up and down his arms: It’s only from bloodletting. Johnson preferred to treat his ailments immediately and vigorously, and had bloodletting performed frequently. Despite the frequent bleedings, he advised his friends against bloodletting, once saying that he held the practice in “abhorrence.”


As if he didn’t have it bad enough, Johnson also had to endure the pain and indignity of a recurring sarcocele—a tumor on his scrotum—which was operated on successfully by doctors on a couple of separate occasions. But when it returned in his old age, the bedridden Johnson became so fed up that he punctured his own pelvic region under the bedsheets, performing a botched surgery on himself.

Poor Doctor Johnson. If you happen to see him, please send an e-mail to the mental_floss tipline.