Oh, goodie!

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.

Buuuut…

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!

Medical Training 

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?!

Bloodletting 

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.

-Bloodletting 1638 Na Woman Using Leeches For Bloodletting Woodcut From Willem Van Den BosscheS Historia Medica Published In 1638

Dentistry 

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! 

Poor woman!

– Dentist. 18th century caricature of a fat dentist with his struggling, overweight female patient. The patient is begging the dentist not to pluck her teeth out like he would the feathers of a pigeon. People who eat large amounts of sugary food are often both overweight and suffer from dental decay. Image drawn in 1797 by British artist Isaac Cruikshank (1756-1811).

 Childbirth

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.

-Source: penandpension.com

Laudanum 

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?

Eh…not exactly!

Laudanum was discovered to do a great job at dulling the senses…

And the Georgians drank it up like it was lemonade!

-An ad for laudanum in the Sears catalog. Image credit: MikeMozart via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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…

Or leeches!

(Dear God…)

 

Written by Hanna Hamilton

40 COMMENTS

  1. Makes me appreciate the medical profession of today. I would have been dead years ago if I had lived back in that time.

    • Truly terrifying! We’re super happy not to be living back then! Dentists are hard to stomach even now! But back then… (X.X)

  2. The medical era was filled with all kinds of ignorance, and that took a tole on the people, and was the cause of many lost lives. Thankfully for us the medical field has advanced so that we don’t have to endure the atrocities of the Victorian era. I liked the article for it’s informative easy.

  3. My step great grandmother was considered a HEALER (or witch). My grandmother told me some of her “cures” and I think I would rather be sick. But some have been considered OK (I think)

  4. Great article to make us happy that there have been many medical advances since Regency times. The Cardiac Cath I’m having tomorrow sounds tons more fun than anything done then. I was worried about it, but now I feel much better. Thank you for such an informative article.

  5. Omgoodness, how scary. I had a leech on my leg when I was a kid swimming and I freaked out. I can’t imagine having them on my body for any good reason. Great article always enjoy them. Thanks.

  6. I agree, I now appreciate my doctor more than ever. I have read some horrible examples of doctoring in the past and I am so thankful that the scientific leaders of the present day scientist have developed so many cures. I am eighty years old and could quote some drastic differences in my life time. Thank you Hanna for a very enlightening art8coe. It definitely gives all of us some thing to think about tonight when we go to bed.

  7. Very interesting article, Hanna. I have seen a couple of those bone saws like the ones used in the American Civil War. When I think about my 3rd Great-Grandfather who was in that War, he never even got to come back home. His family never got to see him come home from the War. He was buried in a semi-mass grave with others they didn’t bother to send home. I am sure there were battles in other countries that had the same result. Great topic you introduced here.
    ~~kay~~

  8. Thanks Hanna,there was also the treatment of the insane – downright torture and brutality with ice baths,leeches and blistering followed by tight constraints and isolation for long periods of time . Remind you of anything? Of course there were female complaints which were classified as hysteria. . . to be treated by genital manipulation by the doctor. Not a pleasant era for women ,especially those married to unforgiving men.

  9. Really impossible to imagine this all happening only a few centuries ago but medicine did not advance very far until more enlightened people discovered the link between cleanliness/hygene brought about with the work of Florence Nightingale & those who followed her. With the discoveries of microbes by Edward Jenner & those who followed him did any real progress begin. Then, during the two World Wars the work of the doctors/nurses/surgeons et al did things become more beneficial to the patient but the discovery of penicillin we saw that the health of so many people improve. Thank goodness for the work of the more enlightened people that we today enjoy the best care that medicine offers.

  10. YIKES that era should be called the Barbarian era not Regency era. And still today doctors don’t always now the right procedure or cure which is why they have malpractice insurance.

  11. I always enjoy your writing Hannah and this article was especially interesting. We are all blessed to live in our modern era!

  12. Hanna, a couple of instances I knew of. 1) 1950, my grandma had an episode that caused her to be confined in an institution till she was “cured” by the use of shock treatments. This involved a bathtub of water, with an electrical wire administering the shock. Thank Heaven she was able to be released as cured. A friend of mine had a skin cancer near her ankle. There was so much infection that leeches were used to eat the diseased flesh. This also happened to a lady who was bitten by a Black Recluse Spider. Leeches were used so she did not lose her leg. Sometimes, old cures do still have usefulness in modern times. This also is why old women who were able to help with infections were sometimes accused of witchcraft. Thanks for all the interesting articles you offer to us.

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