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Health & Medicine in Victorian Britain

The Doncaster Gate Hospital was created in the 1860s, right in the middle of Queen Victoria’s long reign (1837-1901). This was an era of great change in Britain. Understanding of illness and disease remained limited, but there were considerable advancements that transformed how the ill and injured were cared for.

As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, it drew more and more people into the factories and mills of Britain’s towns and cities. Britain became the “workshop of the world”, manufacturing and exporting vast quantities of iron, steel, coal and textiles.

While business boomed, cramped and squalid urban sprawls had a disastrous effect on the health of the nation. It was not uncommon to find three generations of one family under one roof with no running water or sanitation. People were working in increasingly dangerous conditions too. To make matters worse, there was only a poor understanding of how the body worked and how to look after an individual when they were ill or injured.

Medical problems were considered to be caused by genetic issues inherited through the family or a poor lifestyle. The idea that internal ‘humors’ supported the body was still widespread. Local conditions were recognised to contribute and there was a popular belief that noxious gasses were a significant influence on people’s health, but water and air-borne infections were not generally understood. The most common treatment for any illness was a change of air; followed by leeching, laxatives and prayer.

To take an excellent example, the 1848 edition of Buchan's Domestic Medicine included illustrations to show symptoms of smallpox, scarlet fever and measles. The general causes of illness it listed included 'diseased parents', night air, sedentary habits, anger, wet feet and abrupt changes of temperature. Causes of fever were thought to be injury, bad air, violent emotion, irregular bowels and extremes of heat and cold. Cholera, shortly to be epidemic in many British cities, was said to be caused by rancid or putrid food, by 'cold fruits' such as cucumbers and melons, and by passionate fear or rage.

Occupational injuries and sicknesses befell many working in industry. For example, young match girls suffered from “phossy jaw” which was an incurable necrosis caused by exposure to phosphorous. There was an increased possibility of death or injury when toxic substances were involved, but the mills and factories could be lethal on their own: heavy machinery, indifferent employers and scarce legislation was a dangerous combination.

There were significant developments in medical understanding and procedure during Victoria’s reign. Newly developed anesthetics enabled surgeons to perform more sophisticated operations in addition to traditional crude amputations. Ether was demonstrated for the first time in London in October 1846 and chloroform was used when the Queen gave birth for the eighth time in 1853. Specialised surgical instruments and techniques were developed, for some time only with mixed results, as unsterile equipment frequently led to fatal infection.

Antiseptic surgical procedures based on the practical application of Louis Pasteur's laboratory work were developed by Joseph Lister using carbolic acid. Aseptic procedures followed, involving sterilisation of whole environments. Successful outcomes, such as Edward VII's appendicitis operation on the eve of his scheduled coronation, helped pave the way for the 20th-century era of heroic surgery.

In 1895, just a few years before Victoria’s death, came Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of X-rays, and in due course the photo of Roentgen's wife's hand became a potent sign of medical advance through scientific development.

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