Attested in the late 17th century, the colloquial term pox doctor designates a doctor specialising in the treatment of venereal disease.
Since apparently the 20th century, pox doctor’s clerk has been used in two different phrases:
1-: I have found a phrase that seems to have so far been unrecorded: as lucky as the pox doctor’s clerk means very lucky in the following from The West Sussex Gazette and South of England Advertiser (Arundel, Sussex, England) of Thursday 1st November 1945:
A NINE DAYS’ WONDER
BY A SUSSEX WOMAN
“He’s as lucky as the pox doctor’s clerk!” exclaimed Mrs. Paddick as she told me the story of what has been a nine days’ wonder in the village. “Our Syd was drivin’ the tractor in Long Sevenses when summat went bang, an’ he looked round, an’ there was smoke gooin’ up into the air. An’ he jumped off an’ went to look, an’ there was a hole big enough to hold a bar’l”.
“What could have made it, Mrs. Paddick?”
“They say as it was one o’ they old-fashioned bombs as they dropped first of all, mum, as didn’t all goo off, but laid in the ground till summat touched ’em”.
“But what a lucky escape, Mrs. Paddick!”
“Ah, but that wasn’t all, mum. When our Syd looked down into the hole that contraption ’ud made he see a shim of summat, an’ he waited till the smoke ’d all gone an’ then he got down to see what t’was”.
“Not another bomb, I hope, Mrs . Paddick?”
“Oh no, mum, nothing like that. ’Twas a sort of silver image, and the Rector told our Syd ’twas hundreds of years old. As he got it sent up to London for he and this mornin’, I wouldn’t ’uv beleft it, a old image like that, they says it’s worth I dunnamuch money an’ that the crowner’s got to have an inquest on it, same as if ’twas a suicide or summat. An’ the Rector says as it’ll have to goo to some big museum up in London, but our Syd’ll git as much as fifty pound. Fifty pound! That’s why I say he’s as lucky as the pox doctor’s clerk. Might ’uv had his leg or his arm blowed off, and astead he gits fifty pound an’ no damage done. He don’t want the image. He’s gooin’ to put it by in the Post Office Savings Bank”.
“But Mrs. Paddick, who was ‘the pox doctor’s clerk’ and why was he lucky?”
Mrs. Paddick chuckled. “Oh, it’s just a sayin’ mum. Dunno where it comes from, but we all knows it”.
2-: The phrase to look like, or to be done up, like a pox doctor’s clerk, and variants, mean dressed nattily but in bad taste.
The earliest occurrence that I have found is from an article written from London, England, by Ernie Hill, of the Chicago Daily News (Chicago, Illinois), and published in several U.S. newspapers in March 1954—for example in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas) of Friday the 26th:
A miserable combination of circumstances has forced me to spend $3.70 for a derby—better known here as a bowler hat.
At the fifth hat shop, I found one. Currently there is a run on derbies because they suddenly have returned to popularity.
With my bowler cocked at a jaunty angle, I assaulted Sandown on Saturday afternoon and immediately ran into acquaintances.
“No, no,” they shouted. “You can’t wear it like that. You look like a pox doctor’s clerk (pronounced clark).”
It was explained to me how a derby must be worn. The fashion is set by the young blades of Mayfair.
The hat must be placed straight on the head, a little forward so it catches on the bump at the rear of the head. This is to permit the hat to be tipped readily to ladies.
The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from They’re a Weird Mob (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1957), a novel by the Australian author John O’Grady (1907-1981), published under the pen name of Nino Culotta:
I had a shower and changed my clothes. When I came out of the room, Joe and Jimmy were sitting in the lounge drinking beer. Jimmy whistled two notes, softly, and Joe said, ‘Gees, Nino, yer done up like a pox doctor’s clerk. Yer don’ need no coat an’ a coller an’ tie. Too hot, mate. Take ’em orf.’
I took them off. He said, ‘That’s better . . . ’ave a beer.’
Finally, the following is from The Long White Night (London: Frederick Muller, 1965), a novel the Australian author by Eric Lambert (1918-1966)—as quoted by Gerald Alfred Wilkes (1927-2020) in A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (Sydney University Press in association with Oxford University Press Australia, 1990):
They was all dressed like they was at Buckingham Palace and Foran was done up like a pox doctor’s clerk.
– history of the phrase ‘(all) dressed (up) like a Christmas tree’
– the history of ‘dog’s breakfast’ and ‘dog’s dinner’
– meanings and origin of the phrase ‘all dressed up with nowhere to go’