Victorian Medicine: The Terrifying Origins


Modern medicine is much more modern than you might expect. After all, antibiotics were only invented around 100 years ago. Before that, many people succumbed to simple wounds due to infection. More than that, many of the medicinal “treatments” used back then really weren’t as salutary as doctors thought. In fact, some treatments back in the day did more harm than good. That was the world of Victorian medicine.

The thing with Victorian medicine is that medical professionals back then thought diseases were caused in much different ways than how they were actually caused. For example, “bad air” was a big culprit for fevers and other sicknesses including scarlet fever and measles. Other causes could include extreme emotion or getting too hot or too cold.

The doctors back in the day got the cause of cholera especially wrong. There was a particularly terrible cholera epidemic during the 1800s due to main water sources being contaminated with fecal matter. However, instead of suspecting that something was wrong with the water, people of the time were sure that cholera had something to do with bad food, especially cold foods like melons. Of course, melon consumption had nothing to do with catching cholera and many people died as a result.

Victorian Medicine

Victorian medicine

One of the most common recommendations by doctors for virtually any kind of illness was to get a “change of air.” Doctors believed that spending too much time inside or in the city breathing contaminated air was unhealthy. So, a change of air would usually consist of bringing the sick individual to the mountains or to the coast where they could breathe fresher air.

Besides getting a change of air, emetics were also prescribed. Doctors believed that emetics were important for purging any contaminants from the body. In the earlier part of the Victorian era, leaches were also popular to bleed patients. However, leaches were no longer used during the later part of the period (maybe because the doctors of the time realized the creatures did nothing but dehydrate the patient.)

Surgeries were a particularly unpleasant matter. Until the early 20th centuries, most surgeons performed surgeries with their bare hands rather than wearing gloves. This is because they believed their hands, once cleaned, were more sterile than anything else available (which was not at all true.) Most surgical tools used were not properly sterilized either. More than that, there were no anesthetics available, except maybe for a swig of hard liquor. Only when choreiform became available in the middle of the 19th did more complex surgeries become possible.

The Details

Stainless Steel Tool on Gray Metal Rack

Because nothing was sterilized, many people who underwent surgery contracted infections and died. It was only during the later half of the Victorian period that doctors started looking for ways to sterilize medical instruments. It was also around this time that the medical industry started to grow. More and more people started to attend medical colleges, including women. Women in particular started to dominate the profession of nursing.

Medicine itself, however, remained relatively primitive. If a change of air didn’t work to get rid of an illness, a doctor would prescribe some botanical cocktail. Hypnotism or electric therapy might have also been used. Many popular medicines available at various stores were nothing more than bottles of high-proof alcohol, often with some herbs or oils thrown in. There were also plenty of medicines that were full of toxins such as arsenic.

Drugs that are now highly illegal today were widely used back then. For instance, doctors knew of cocaine’s pain-relieving characteristics and made it into a medicine to reduce the discomfort of toothaches. Many parents gave their children morphine to get them to calm down. Opium was great for treating diarrhea (of which there was a lot back then). Interestingly enough, opium was actually so good at treating diarrhea that opium tinctures are still available even today.

Purple Petaled Flowers in Mortar and Pestle

It was only after the end of the Victorian era in 1928 that penicillin, the first antibiotic, was discovered. Since then, the world of medicine has been a lot better off.

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