Medical Breakthroughs In Elizabeth’s Lifetime

Medical Breakthroughs In Elizabeth’s Lifetime

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.

A Look At the Smallpox Vaccine

The Discovery of Laughing Gas

The History of the Stethoscope

Ignaz Semmelweis


25 Responses to Medical Breakthroughs In Elizabeth’s Lifetime

  1. Elaine, Thank you for this fascinating post! It’s going to be interesting to see what medical breakthroughs come about as a result of this virus.

  2. Years ago (I was probably about 14) I borrowed a book from my Aunt’s bookshelf – a fictionalized version of the life of Dr. Semmelweis – it was very moving as he tried so hard to convince the medical elite of the validity of his discovery. He died young, a broken man. I have never forgotten the novel “The Cry and the Covenant” written by Morton Thompson (He also wrote Not as a Stranger). I have never forgotten this book, one of those that changes you for life – and never heard of it since, which is such a shame. I notice on Amazon that the reviews are stunning, and prompted one reader to go into nursing. It’s still available on Amazon but at a huge price. If you ever found it in a discount store, I urge you to pick it up.

    • That sounds amazing. I’ll have to look around for it.

      Dr. Semmelweis’ life story moved me to tears when I first read it years ago. He was so certain about the efficacy of washing hands in preventing maternal deaths that he started running up to pregnant women on the street, complete strangers, begging them to make sure that their delivering doctors would wash their hands. People thought he had completely lost his mind! (And in truth, he was displaying some signs of dementia.) He was tricked into visiting an insane asylum and once he was there, they kept him. The guards there treated him cruelly and after one particularly harsh beating he got some kind of cut that became infected. The doctor who pioneered hand washing hygiene ultimately died of . . . infection.

  3. Thank you for this insightful post about medical breakthroughs… Aren’t we lucky that they had discovered such before out times. Just hoping you and all your families ar ein the best of health!!!

    • We are, thanks, and I hope you are too! We had a little bit of a scare because my daughter was exposed to a symptomatic person, and then she developed a cough herself. Fortunately her test was negative so we are out of the doctor imposed household quarantine and “just” in a regular lockdown now.

  4. I had read one article online about how early doctors would go from an arena, where they were dissecting/studying corpses, into a delivery room to deliver a baby without washing their hands. Yeah, having a baby was serious business back then. That first picture made me shudder. Surely he is not about to bleed that baby. OMG! That poor mother is so trusting that he knows what is best. Goodness. I read somewhere where our own President, George Washington, died from being bled too much. I had never heard that. Doctors can only do what they can with the knowledge they have. Research and study constantly debunks old theories and new practices are put in place. Goodness knows what our future generations will say about how we are handling this virus. Blessings, everyone. Keep you distance and stay safe. This too shall pass.

    • The first picture is of a doctor vaccinating a baby against smallpox. What I find most amazing in that story is the complete lack of ethical guidelines on display. The doctor came up with his theory. He innoculated a young boy (maybe his own son?) and then exposed to the child to smallpox to see if it were true. What if his theory had been wrong???? That would never be allowed today.

      • I should have realized the picture was with the paragraph on smallpox. Plus the clue with the servant/nurse pulling her sleeve down where she had been vaccinated. Whew! However, what about the man in the distance? Not everyone accepted vaccination. Perhaps he didn’t. Was he the father or one of the hands? Maybe he is coming in to get his. It is ironic that the cow is in the scene… possibly saying ‘your welcome.’

    • Thanks Janis. I already knew about the smallpox vaccine, handwashing, and a little about laughing gas. The history behind the stethoscope was completely new.

  5. No telling how many doctors, during that time and before, killed women with childbed fever because of not washing their hands. My father was a general surgeon and my mother a nurse. I guarantee I learned about washing hands probably before I began crawling. Thank you for an interesting post, Elaine. 🙂

    • So the current handwashing craze is not new for you! As you undoubtedly know, there is a lot more to the Simmelweis story. I could only give the bare details here.

    • We’re doing well, hope you are too! I’m glad you liked the post. It’s an idea I had almost written about last summer, but I’m glad I waited until it was more timely.

  6. Thank you for this insightful post. The hero in my current novel (set in 1821) is a doctor. This is great for research. 🙂

      • It is in the final editing phase. If all goes as planned I am hoping for a late spring/early summer release. 🙂

        You can find my debut novel (the new book will be its sequel) on amazon.

        • Hi Virginia, Thanks for replying. I found your debut novel (Not liking Amazon,sometimes when i do a search of JA-related books it doesn’t give me all the books. And believe me I have searched/scrolled upto 130+ pages sometimes and I still miss some).

      • Yes, it is a romance. This story features the youngest sister from my debut novel. She meets the new doctor, who recently moved to their village, during a family emergency.

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