Medicine Through Time: The Nineteenth Century

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.

C.1830-1880, Yorkshire Pharmacist’s Book of Remedies and Medical Notes (C696)
Of Scrofula, or King’s Evil

Scrofula (from Scrofa, a sow) is so called because bovine are said to be subject to it. – It is also called King’s Evil from Edward the Confessor & other succeeding kings both of England & France pretending to cure it by the touch.
It is a disease, one of the chief on most palpable symptoms of which is a chronic swelling of the glands, in various parts of the body, which glands generally tend very slowly to imperfect suppuration. The first appearances, however, sometimes consist of spots on the different parts of the body, and of eruptions and ulcerations behind the ears; but the glands seldom or never fail to become affected in the course of the complaint.
The disease, for the most part, shows itself early in life, though rarely before the second, and commonly not till the third year of infancy; from which period of continuous to prey on the system till the seventh, tenth, fifteenth years, or longer, when in ordinary cases, it gradually subsides. The attack is sometimes postponed till after the twelfth or fifteenth years.

19th Century, Culinary recipes, medical prescriptions and other papers collected by Anne Lister and others (SH-3-L-122)
A Receipt for a Cold
Scald a large lemon like a codlin strain the Juce [juice] through a sive [sieve] 4 ounces of Brown Sugar Candy
Beat very fine 4 Ounces oyle [oil] of sweet almonds
2 Ounces of Diascodium mix all these together
Take a large Spoonfull going doe rest or a tea Spoonful when the cough is trouble some
                                Another for a cold
Take four spoonfull of honney and two spoonfull of oyl Simmer these together storring [stirring] it all the wile [while] take it of the fire star [stir] it tile it is coal [cool] take a tea Spoonfull when the Cough is trouble some

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.

1822-1824, Diary of Lady Amabel of Yorke, Page 56 (WYL150/35)

L[or]d Londonderry has been discovering very rationally, upon the approaching Congress which he was to attend, when the King’s observing to him that he look’d ill & desiring him to attend to his Health, brought out such a Flow of strange & wild Suspicion that the King after the audience spoke to the Duke of Wellington, & desir’d him to write a Letter to Dr Bankhead which was read on the Coroner’s Inquest.

Bankhead treated the Disease very slightly, did not advise him to stay in Town did not come down to North Cray till Saturday Evening, & then trusted to some common Senna Draughts, though since the Friday Night when Bleeding seem’d to do him good, he was evidently on Saturday & Sunday growing worse. The Servants had remov’d Pistols out of his way rather apprehending that his Suspicions would endanger others than Himself, but had not minded the Penknife.
1845, Smallpox Vaccination Poster (KC609)