The 1800s was a remarkable century for medical discoveries. Louis Pasteur proved that disease was caused by germs in 1864. Edward Jenner had already begun his work on smallpox in 1798. The discovery of the rabies inoculations was in 1885. Anaesthetic was invented in the 1840s. The stethoscope was invented in France in 1817 and Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the use of X-rays in 1895.
Although proven, germ theory wasn’t widely believed. Despite the scientific change, many practitioners still believed in Galen’s theory of the four humours. Ailments and illnesses were still thought to be caused by too much of one humour. The spread of disease was thought to be worsened by certain climates and locations. These produced miasma or bad air. The miasma infiltrated the body through the skin’s pores or the nose or mouth and affected the heart and body. Violent extremes of emotion like rage or grief could also easily make someone ill.
Death statistics were high for the period in comparison to today. Diseases like tuberculosis (or consumption) and cholera were widespread across the country. Dangerous jobs like match making or chimney sweeping often caused permanent ill health. Treatments were still reliant on the same medieval remedies. Purging the body through the use of emetics (laxatives) or by bleeding, cupping or leeches was the first treatment to try. This was thought to relieve the excess of humours causing the illness. The practices of creating your own remedies to illness also continued into the nineteenth century. Many of these books were the medical treasure trove of the household. With remedies for toothache, indigestion, headaches and ringworm they were very valuable. Our Calderdale branch holds the family and estate records of the famous diarist Anne Lister. Her writing contains intriguing little snippets of her dealings with nineteenth century medicine. It’s a remarkable insight into the makings of household medicine.
During this period there was also the rise in anatomy and body dissections. After the 1832 Anatomy Act, doctors were required to dissect human bodies to qualify. Historically, medical colleges had used the bodies of criminals for dissection. Bodies were often taken straight from the hangman’s noose. The Anatomy Act resulted in a huge demand for bodies which lead to body snatching from graves. Stealing bodies from fresh graves could be very well-paid as medical students were often desperate for body parts. Grave robbing became well-known after the popularised case of Burke and Hare. They murdered sixteen people to sell their bodies to the Edinburgh anatomical school.
The nineteenth century also saw medicine become more regulated and professionalised like it is today. There were fewer empirics, quacks and barber-surgeons offering their services and medical practices started to become more aligned with our modern understandings of doctors today.
1811, Notes on the treatment of ailments and other household hints (SH:7/ML/MISC/13)
Take of quicksilver one drachm, powder’d Gum Arabic two drachms – dissolve of quicksilver as in the former process, but instead of the theriac add saponis veneti one drachm, & divide the mass into seventy five pills.