With all the recent hysteria over diseases that most people have an incredibly small chance of contracting, I thought it might be… er, “fun” to take a look at the very real, and often very horrific medical diseases and practices of 19th century England. Our own dear Jane died at the young age of 41, and to this day, no one is sure quite what felled her. (People have speculated everything from cancer, to arsenic poisoning, Addison’s Disease, or even something called “disseminated bovine tuberculosis.”) At the very least, this’ll make you feel better about modern medical practices… we hope.
For almost 2000 years, the professional medical community believed in a theory known as “Humorism.” And no, it wasn’t funny.
The theory of humorism was based around the idea that the human body had four “humors:” blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. If you were sick, it was believed that your humors were out of balance, and one or more of them must be purged in order to bring them back to an equilibrium. The most common purge was that of bloodletting. Doctors would open a vein and drain a portion of the patient’s blood away.
You Read About It In: Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne has her blood let during her Willoughby-induced illness. Surprisingly, it doesn’t do her any harm, but probably only because when Jane wrote about it, it was still an accepted practice.
While this barbaric practice might have inadvertently helped patients suffering from specific diseases like hypertension, it more often weakened, them, and was fatal more often than it was helpful. In 1799, George Washington requested this course of “medicine” because he had contracted a sore throat. Over the course of 10 to 16 hours, doctors removed almost 4 liters, which ultimately led to his death within a few days.
There is good news though. Today, bloodletting can help those with a rare condition called hemochromatosis, in which the body has too much iron in the blood. Far from weakening the patient, bloodletting can save the life of those who have this disease.
Not the “great pox” (Syphillis) but the “small pox,” this disease left its victims scarred for life
First introduced to humanity thousands of years ago, don’t fear this disease too much: The World Health Organization declared it eradicated in 1980. Initial signs and symptoms presented much like a cold or a bad case of the flu, but resulted quickly in hundreds of pockmarks across the body, which would scar and discolor. Approximately 30% of people infected would die, and it was highly contagious. Anyone who volunteered to care for the ill was susceptible to catching it. Although some survived without obvious disfigurement, many were not so lucky, and their scars remained.
You Read About It In: Esther and Charley, in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House both become infected with smallpox after visiting a sick neighbor. They both survive, and Charley even recovers her looks, but Esther is left permanently scarred and even temporarily blind.
As I said above though, this horrible disease was declared eradicated no less than 30 years ago, and there has been a vaccination for it since 1796. Edward Jenner, the father of modern immunology, discovered that by introducing a small amount of a similar disease, cow-pox, into a person’s immune system, they would be forever protected against the far worse horrors of smallpox.
Opium by any other name is still really, really addicting… and the Georgians drank it up like Kool-aid.
Laudanum, which was discovered to be a useful drug for dulling sense, really caught fire as a popular drug during the Victorian era, when it was prescribed to adults and children alike for any number of ailments, from a runny nose to depression, and colic to hysteria.
Laudanum, of course, is simply a tincture of opium, causing a dope-addled state in those who would take unneeded, large quantities, and eventually led many to addiction and depression. In others, it would cause opiate-induced trips, and hallucinations.
You Read About It In: Ever read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland? How about any of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s work? Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Charles Dickens? All were laudanum addicts. Thomas De Quincey most famously wrote about his struggle with the drug in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, published in 1822.
In 1906, The U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act required addictive substances like opium, marijuana and heroin be labeled accurately in any medicines that contained them. The 1914 Narcotics Tax Act placed substantial fines on any production of such “medicines,” substantially halting their sale, and in 1970, opium was classified as a Schedule II drug, and its use is now regulated all over the world.
So next time you have a persistent cough, or have to go to the doctor, thank your lucky stars you were born recently! Modern medicine may not be perfect, but we’ve come a long way since the Georgians!
– Admin R has a bit of a headache… but she’ll stick to Excedrin, thankyouverymuch!