Friday, August 19, 2011

Health and Medical Treatment in Victorian England

Physicians had little knowledge, yet, of the cause of disease, so treatments were still backward and life expectancy was shorter than today. No real advances in the field were made during the Victorian century. Nutrition was poor, and epidemics swept through crowded cities. By the end of the century, bacteria were being identified, but cures were still forthcoming.

Prince Albert brought with him, into his marriage to the Queen, his native homeopathic remedies. They were used in the royal household, and are still being used by today's Queen. Most people depended on traditional remedies, herbal medicines and the sage advice of elderly women. Even in an aristocratic household, it was the knowledge of a laundress or kitchen maid that was often called upon to treat illness of the servants or even the noble family.

Women and older girls were expected to be delicate, and members of the upper class were thought to be unable to digest the coarse foods of the workers. They were also considered to be more endangered by cold, wet and exhaustion than their servants were. However, servants started working before their bodies had matured and often were unable to work beyond the age of forty. Once they were worn out, they often had no way to earn a living and ended up in the workhouses, where they struggled to survive.

Household manuals were the order of the day. One learned from such that most illnesses were caused by "bad air", which was true to the extent that the bad odors spoken of were caused by bacteria growing in garbage, sewage and the bodies of dead animals. There was the good advice to choose a home on high ground and keep drains clean to prevent "bad air", but windows were commonly sealed to keep night air out. Infant mortality was very high, and worse yet in poor areas.

Medical practitioners were becoming increasingly professionalized, but even at the end of the era, many practiced medicine with no formal qualifications. Medical students, learning to become apothecaries and surgeons, were often middle teenage boys with a reputation for rowdiness. Physicians were the only ones with university degrees. A medical degree from Oxford or Cambridge required students to learn plenty of Greek and Latin theory but did not include practical experience. Physicians were gentlemen; their wives could be presented at court. Surgeons and apothecaries wives could not, as they were considered to be laborers.
Since gentlemen did not work for money, a physician's fee was often wrapped in paper and laid near his hand. A physician could eat with an aristocratic family while a surgeon ate with the servants. Small numbers of women began to make their way, with difficulty, into the medical profession by 1878.



Most babies were delivered by traditional midwives who had been trained as apprentices. They worked for several years with an older midwife attending births, studying anatomy and herbal pharmacology. Local wisewomen probably knew more about women's and children's health than most physicians did.


A Victorian woman , whether attended by an obstetrician or midwife, was far safer having her baby at home than in a hospital. Puerperal fever was transmitted in hospitals and resulted in many deaths. Midwives, who stayed with one patient throughout the birth and for several days afterward, had a much better safety record than doctors. Doctors went from one patient to another and often carried infection along on their unwashed hands.
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If you love learning about different eras, please join the Goodreads Group "Historical Info for Historical Fiction Readers"
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Much of the information above came from the book Victorian England, edited by Clarice Swisher. The health and medical section was written by Sally Mitchell. The next article will be on the development of nursing care in Victorian England.
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Images thanks to Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

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