Now this is something worth writing about!
I’m certain we are all very thankful and appreciative of modern-day medicine and healthcare. In the last 50 years, the medical field can boast an array of life-saving developments including antibiotics, vaccinations, imaging, angioplasty, statins, antiviral therapy for HIV, transplantation of vital organs, ACE inhibitors, and many others.
Needless to say, a lot of lives have been saved, and many more will be saved as the years pass.
It was not always like that!
And now I can hear you saying “Duh, of course it wasn’t, Hanna! Thank you for stating the obvious!”
I know, I know! That’s kind of a redundant thing to say.
But I mean it. It really wasn’t always like that.
As in…things were dreadfully bad!
The Georgian Era—and by extension, the Regency Era—was not that long ago, if you think about how old the world is. It actually feels quite recent. And to be completely honest, it’s kind of depressing to think about how people treated illness back then.
I find myself imagining how very differently medical emergencies would have played out during the Regency. The Regency world has many differences from ours, but many similarities, as well—which of course is a part of what makes Jane Austen’s books so timeless. But the whole field of medicine was very, very different from what we know today.
(And thank God, for that!)
Medical practices in the Regency time-period were a fascinating blend of burgeoning science and cruel, almost torturous, traditions. During the Napoleonic wars more soldiers died of disease than they did on the battlefield. Conditions were awful for the sick and wounded. There were no nurses until the Crimean war. Wounded soldiers were picked up and carried off the field, not by medics, but by the regiment musicians. Or sometimes local peasants with carts.
And just to give you a taste, let’s take a look at a few interesting facts about medicine and medical practices of the Romantic Era!
There was no system of medical school training during the Regency, and only a very few hospitals. Those practicing medicine professionally could be classified as physicians, surgeons, or apothecaries—and the amount of social prestige that each received went in that order, too, with physicians having the most, and apothecaries the least. Physicians were also the most expensive. In Jane Eyre, Jane mentions, “Mr. Lloyd, an apothecary, sometimes called in by Mrs. Reed when the servants were ailing; for herself and the children she employed a physician.”
The Famous Surgeons
Physicians did not conduct operations, set broken bones, or even do serious physical exams. That would have meant working with their hands, which was not considered “gentlemanly”. All of those medical procedures would have been carried out by a surgeon. But anyone who thinks they would have chosen a surgeon over a physician if they’d been alive during the Regency might want to reconsider. You didn’t actually need a licence to practice surgery.
And that’s a very scary thought!
Don’t these look simply delightful?!
Bleeding was a common “cure” for ailments of all kinds. In 1824, the poet Lord Byron died, largely because of the violent bloodletting his doctors insisted on as a remedy for a feverish cold. Even soldiers who had lost a great deal of blood from their battle wounds would be bled to “reduce the blood flow”. It’s not really any wonder that far more soldiers in the Napoleonic wars died of complications after the battle than died in combat.
Regency Era doctors used black leather medical bags to store many of the instruments used by doctors today—lancets and scalpels and primitive syringes (mostly used, I’m afraid, to inject mercury into penises to cure venereal diseases). There were also weird and frightening instruments fortunately no longer used, like bleeding cups and uterine probes.
In one grisly account, a surgeon drastically bled a soldier following his surgery to reduce the blood flow. When the doctor still could not stop the patient’s profuse bleeding, he applied twelve leeches to his wound. The soldier awoke in agony, and plucked off the parasites and threw them. Amazingly, he survived to tell the tale, which is more a testament to his courage and fortitude than the medical care he received.
Dentists were found only in larger cities. As with medical care, dentistry was rudimentary at best. Jane Austen’s own mother lost her front teeth before the age of forty!
And speaking of poor women…not only did they have to endure the nine months of pregnancy with absolutely no help or professional advice—especially if they were women of the lower classes, which had to suffer harsh labor too—but, Doctors did not become involved in childbirth until later in the 19th century. During the Regency Era, a midwife or a ‘monthly nurse’ might be called in to assist at a birth, but often the birth was handled by the mother’s female relations. Childbirth was dangerous, and death during or after childbirth was quite common.
Opium was, is, and will continue to be a very potent, and very addictive substance. Sounds exactly like something you’d want to steer clear of, right? Sure!
But did the Georgians think the same?
Laudanum was discovered to do a great job at dulling the senses…
And the Georgians drank it up like it was lemonade!
Oh dear! Regency Era medical practices sound more like great ways to scare our children into going to get that persistent cough treated now than to heal ailments!
Errr…I’m sorry, I’ll just excuse myself and go arrange an appointment with my doctor.
Oh, no no! I’m perfectly healthy!
I just need to be reminded that he doesn’t have any saws hidden somewhere…
Or blood cups…
Written by Hanna Hamilton