Medical Practices of the 19th Century Meas 238 2/22/2012 Summary In the era the 19th century (the 1800’s), miraculous medical discoveries were on the rise. I would like to discuss not only the horrifying procedures that were used in this era, but also the medical breakthroughs that would come about in the progression of these hundred years. Along with the medical discoveries though, there were still the doctors and medical professionals and even patients who chose to hold onto their superstitions and were reluctant to let go of their taught past ideas.
I would like to more fully address and acknowledge all of the medical procedures done in this much medically divided century, not only the ones that made breakthroughs, but also shine a light on the medical practices that would now be considered ridiculous and unheard of. There were so many practices that had been going on since the 1700’s and the ideals had carried on through much of the later part of the 18th century and into the 19th century as well.
Some of the doctors were always looking for new and improved ways to make the medical field a better place but some just could not let go of their older ways of what they had been taught (probably even from family practices). Medical Practices of the 19th Century From the 19th century to the 21st century the amount of medical changes that have come about is phenomenal. Things that we consider very normal, and very commonsense procedures now, were not heard of in the 19th century, Victorian times, and the things that they would be doing only less than two hundred years ago, that were such ‘common practices’, now seem to us to be bizarre.
One of the most common practices that had been used even as recently as the late 1800s was a practice called bloodletting. Bloodletting was a practice that was also called what we know now to be Phlebotomy. It was the draining of blood done by a barber, not a doctor, and the barber would use a lancet to cut the patients skin so that they could be bled out (Modern Medicine in the 19th Century, 2010).
Benjamin Rush, who was a premiere physician in America at that time, proposed that “bleeding would help a slow or fast pulse, open or lose the bowels, decrease fever as well as chilling, and relieve a coma but also induce sleep. Rush was never concerned about removing too much blood, in fact, he believed as much as four-fifths of the body’s blood could be removed” (University of Virginia, 2009). The original use of bloodletting came about from the idea of a physician by the name of Galen. Galen believed in bloodletting due to his belief in the four humors. According to this theory, the body is made up of four humors – blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. The relative amounts of each humor in the body determined state of health and temperament (a person with more blood was “sanguine”; with more phlegm “phlegmatic”; with black bile “melancholic”; and if yellow bile predominated, “choleric” or “bilious”). Too much or too little of any humor was said to cause illness, which could be cured by restoring the balance” (Medicine in the 1860’s Victoria, 2008) Thus leading to the most common letting being blood.
Rush, a strong follower and believer of Galen’s theory, was so well respected in his medical opinions that he even was considered to be the “Father of American psychiatry” (University of Virginia, 2009). Benjamin Rush was even one of the fore fathers who signed the US Declaration of Independence, and one of his most famous associates was George Washington. George Washington was such a good friend of Rush and strong believer in this ‘bloodletting’ that as he became sick, even though he believed it to be from the inclement weather, he requested to be bled heavily. “After being bled of almost four pounds of blood (more than 3. pints), Washington died. The official cause of death is throat infection from the inclement weather” (Modern Medicine in the 19th Century, 2010). Another common substance that has fascinated humans since as far back as 1500 BC, is mercury. This bendable, rollable unique substance, that we now know is deadly poisonous, was thought to be so immaculate that there could be no way that it couldn’t be of some good for you (Birch, 2007). In the 1800’s mercury was prescribed for just about everything. “Scraped your knee? Just rub a little mercury on it. Having some problems with regularity?
Forget fiber, time to get some mercury up in there! If you lived more than 100 years ago, you simply weren’t considered healthy if you weren’t leaking silver from at least one orifice” (Birch, 2007). The side effects that we now know about mercury include chest pain, heart and lung problems, coughing, tremors, violent muscle spasms, psychotic reactions, hallucinations and the list goes on. And as we are on the topic of deadly drugs being prescribed in the 19th century, we should also look into what are now illegal drugs, that were then given to not only adults but also children.
Cocaine was often prescribed for toothaches for children. All you had to do was rub some cocaine on the tooth and the pain went away. Or the fact that they would prescribe Heroine for coughs. The cough and toothaches were gone, but the amount of drug dependent Americans sky rocketed (Birch, 2007). Not to mention that you could get a prescription for opium on the streets of Victoria. Another problem that occurred back in the 1800’s was the amount of children that women were having, probably due to lack of birth control, and probably driving most of the ‘stay at home moms’ crazy.
The cure for these hyper children was ‘soothing syrup’. Soothing syrup was a mixture of “. morphin sulphate, chloroform, morphine hydrochloride, codeine, heroin, powdered opium, and cannabis indica” (Birch, 2007). Of course on the bright side the children slept well at night and stayed out of their mother’s hair. Aside from all of the medical procedures that we would now consider absurd, the 19th century was also a great time for medical breakthroughs. “Jakob Henle linked the study of anatomy with the study of biological functions and created physiology. Robert Virchow created the field of cellular pathology.
Louis Pasteur’s experiments, including his famous study of hydrophobia-rabies, evolved into the field of microbiology, and when Robert Koch discovered the bacteria that created anthrax, tuberculosis, and cholera, he created the field of bacteriology and Joseph Lister proved that surgery could be made safer by disinfecting surgical equipment, along with William Morton developing anesthesia techniques that made surgery painless” (19th century medicine, 2005). Before the 19th century the main quality of an instrument was not what it could do but was only considered for its eauty. If you compare the beauty of the devices from then to now, you would see that they used to be made from the finest woods and the material ebony, but as time went on and asepsis was discovered new more effective but less attractive instruments were invented. Some of the not so pretty but necessary instruments that became introduced were the stethoscope, the discovery of anesthesia, asepsis, blood pressure measurement, X-rays, radioactivity and probably one of the most important being the discovery of the germ theory (“Medical practices in,” 2003) .
These one hundred years had not only some horrible and humorous ways to treat patients but was also a time for remarkable discoveries like never before in the history of medicine, and most of the discoveries are still very valid today. Conclusion The 19th Century could be thought of, at the very least, a very interesting time for medical discoveries and medical procedures. We have gone over the different things that were invented such as the stethoscope, the invention of blood pressure, and the discovery of things such as asepsis and germ theory.
We have also covered past procedures that were so common for back then, but now almost two hundred years later we find utterly senseless and almost laughable. Things like the use of illegal drugs for common illnesses and one of the most popular common practices of the day, bloodletting. I believe that we would like to think we have come a long way in medicine since the late 1800’s, and in many ways we have, but what I am really curious of is what the world will think of our medical practices from today, in another hundred years or so. References 19th century medicine. 2005). A Short History of Medical Careers, Retrieved from http://library. thinkquest. org/15569/hist-9. html (2003). Medical practices in the 19th century. Museum Of Historical Medicine, Retrieved from http://www. mohma. org/medical_practices/ Birch, N. (2007, November 20). The 10 most insane medical practices in history. Cracked. com, DOI: The 10 Most Insane Medical Practices in History | Cracked. com http://www. cracked. com/article_15669_the-10-most-insane-medical-practices-in-history_p2. html Klein, J. (2009). Medicine at the turn of the nineteenth