06 August 2018

Healthcare through the Ages: The Victorian Era


The Victorian era is often remembered for being an "inventive" period in British history. From innovative technologies to bizarre remedies, the nineteenth-century was rife with experiments, particularly within the field of medicine. Let us revert on a journey back in time and explore healthcare as it existed during Queen Victoria's reign... 

The effect of Urbanisation 

While the mid 1800s saw a burst of technological growth, death rates were high, and far worse in cities than in the country. Smallpox, typhus and tuberculosis were endemic, and cholera was worryingly epidemic. Overcrowding combined with poor sanitation and often grinding poverty left many people vulnerable to the latest outbreak of a variety of illnesses.

Bizarre Medications

Imagine a world when morphine is prescribed for a child's cough - or cocaine for mild toothache. When Queen Victoria was on the throne, you didn't have to imagine. Long before drugs were criminalised, dangerous substances such as these were routinely used in remedies for coughs, colds and toothaches as a cure-all magic ingredient in Victorian medicine.

New Technologies 

Technological developments were established, from the opthalmoscope and improved microscopes that revealed micro-organisms, to instruments like the kymograph, to measure blood pressure and muscular contraction. By the mid-century, the stethoscope, invented in France in 1817 to aid diagnosis of respiratory and cardiac disorders, became the symbolic icon of the medical profession. 

Freud and Freudian Theory

The model of the human mind proposed by Sigmund Freud, altered the way in which we view not only ourselves, but also our language and culture. Freud's life goal was to "agitate the sleep of mankind." What did he mean by this? Sigmund Freud created a description of the mind that emphasizes the major role played by unconscious drives, particularly those of sexuality. 

Freud believed that our childhood events hold great influence over our adult lives, shaping our personality. For example, anxiety originating from traumatic experiences in a person's past is hidden from consciousness, and may cause problems during adulthood in the form of neuroses.


The development of vaccinations - including the rabies vaccination, were at the focus of Victorian medicine. 

Virtually all infections with rabies resulted in death,until French scientists Louis Pasteur and Émile Roux, developed the first rabies vaccination in 1885. This vaccine was first used on a human on 6th July, 1885, on nine-year-old Joseph Meister (1876–1940), who had been mauled by a rabid dog. He survived. 

The X-ray

The first X-ray took place in 1895 after German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen accidentally discovered X-rays—highly energetic electromagnetic radiation capable of penetrating most solid objects. The first radiographed image featured Röntgen's wife's left hand. Within a year, the first radiology department opened in a Glasgow hospital, and the department head produced the first pictures of a kidney stone and a penny lodged in a child’s throat. 


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