Medical news is getting all the attention these days, isn’t it? And for good reason. We are facing a health challenge different from anything that most of us have seen in our lifetime. These can be scary times, but today I’d like to offer some encouragement. Medical breakthroughs happen all the time, and sometimes in the most unexpected places. If Elizabeth Bennet had been a “real” person and lived in the first half of the 19th century, what kind of medical breakthroughs would she have seen?
For the purpose of this article let’s assume that Pride and Prejudice was set in 1810, meaning that Elizabeth was born in 1790. She picked a very fortunate time to be born! The first medical advance in her lifetime would have been vaccinations against smallpox.
Smallpox was one of the most feared diseases ever to infect people in earlier ages. It was contagious before people even knew they were sick, and it had a mortality rate of about 30%! In the 19th century it was responsible for nearly half a million deaths worldwide each year, and those who survived were often visibly scarred. Sometimes survivors even went blind. But with the advent of the smallpox vaccine this terrible disease was wiped out, and it is now considered completely extinct. In her lifetime Elizabeth would have seen this terrible affliction greatly diminished.
Another significant development, though not as dramatic, was the use of nitrous oxide as an anesthetic. Before doctors discovered how to use this gas their patients had to endure surgeries or other painful procedures with nothing but gritted teeth, a prayer for strength, and maybe a generous supply of alcohol. But in 1799 Sir Humphry Davies, a Cornish scientist, experimented on himself (and a few party-loving friends) and found that breathing nitrous oxide made him euphoric and insensible to pain. The medical world was slow to catch on, however. It took another forty years before nitrous oxide began to be used with patients undergoing surgery, but it did eventually become a standard treatment for pain management. Today we commonly refer to it as laughing gas.
Elizabeth would definitely have appreciated the next invention! In 1816 a French doctor name Renee Laennec was walking in the woods when he saw children playing with a long, hollow piece of wood and a pin. He noticed that one child could put his ear to a pin at one end of the piece of wood and clearly hear taps that the other child made at the other end. Something must have clicked in his mind because not long after that, he put his observations to work in his medical practice.
A young female patient with heart problems presented herself to Laennec for treatment. Laennec was reluctant to place his ear against the girl’s chest, as was the common practice at the time, but he remembered what he had seen the children doing. He wrapped a piece of paper into the shape of a tube and put that against the girl’s chest instead. He was delighted when he could hear her heart and lungs clearly through the device. It wasn’t long before his idea caught on. Today there is hardly a doctor anywhere who doesn’t carry a stethoscope around his neck or in a pocket, ready to use at a moment’s notice.
But in 1846 Elizabeth would have seen one of the most significant advances in medicine take place: handwashing hygiene. A Hungarian doctor named Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis worked with mothers who were in labor in a hospital setting. He noticed that patients in one ward were dying at a startlingly high rate and decided to investigate. He looked into several popular theories of the day: a bad “miasma” in the air, a priest ringing a bell in the ward at night, and several other possibilities. But when one of his own colleagues died of infection from a cut on his hand, he suddenly realized that the infections in his female patients and the infection on his colleague’s hand might be coming from the same source. Nobody had discovered germs yet, but Semmelweis theorized that doctors were carrying something infectious on their hands and transmitting them from sick patients to well patients. He instituted a strict handwashing routine in the affected ward and the death rate immediately dropped. The rest, as they say, is history.
These stories ought to encourage us in today’s uncertain environment. Yes, the medical news today is scary. But If Elizabeth were alive today she would be astonished and delighted by the amount of medical know-how at our disposal!
For further learning you can read all about some of these medical discoveries in the links below.