Getting Sick in the Eighteenth Century

One of the first London hospitals:
Westminster Hospital. This is the newer
building, built 1834.
In the 11th installment of Mr. B Speaks!, Mr. B suffers from a brief illness. Although this illness is largely metaphorical (it lasts almost exactly as long as Pamela is gone), it would have caused concern in an eighteenth century household.

Modern, Western youth has almost no idea how far medicine has progressed in the last oh, forty years--let alone 300. Medicine is one thing that has continually improved--in fits and starts--throughout history. Governments rise and fall. Human nature remains as recognizable as it was to Shakespeare. But the knowledge of the human body has steadily improved from ancient times to now.

So much so that the lack of "basics" is hard to conceive. In Connie Willis's Doomsday Book, when the boy Colin shows up in medieval England to rescue the heroine Kivrin, he says (paraphrasing), "I brought aspirin. I figured they wouldn't have penicillin yet, but they would surely have aspirin."

No--no aspirin, Colin.

And no aspirin by the eighteenth century. Also no aesthetic. This was in a world filled with toothache, cancer, and influenza plus diseases caused by poor hygiene--typhus, puerperal (childbed) fever and--due to malnutrition--scurvy.

There were some hospitals but they weren't terrible effective. Hospitals were mostly just holding areas for the ill poor, including servants. Some hospitals focused on smallpox inoculations. Generally, however, you were better off staying home.

After all, the most a hospital could do was give you a place to die. There were few real remedies. The popular technique of bloodletting was entirely useless. Lethal "remedies," such as mercury, were used to combat venereal diseases. As mentioned above, inoculations did begin in the early 1700s, but unlike alarmists' claims today, these inoculations really would as likely kill as save you. (Inoculations improved rapidly over the next 100 years--to good purpose since a disease like smallpox could decimate a population. In the Americas, such diseases wiped out nearly 90% of the Native American population.)

There were some useful folk/home remedies, such as quinine and foxglove, but not nearly as many as the lovers of natural medicine would like to believe. Let's face it: before pharmaceutical companies, life was a lot more painful and a lot less safe.

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