Medicine During the Regency: 10 Interesting Facts

Medicine During the Regency: 10 Interesting Facts

This past week, my baby boy (age 15 mos.) became the youngest member of our family to need a trip to the emergency room. In a complete freak accident, he tripped ( while standing less than 3 feet away from me, my husband, and his two older sisters, no less) and wound up needing seven stitches. In the moment, of course, and during our trip to the hospital, I wasn’t thinking about anything at all except my poor little guy. He’s thankfully on the mend now, though– and when it came time for me to brainstorm ideas for this post, I found myself imagining how very differently the whole accident or another medical emergency would have played out during the Regency.

The Regency world has many differences from ours, but many similarities, as well– which of course is a part of what makes Jane Austen’s books so timeless. But the whole field of medicine was very, very different from what we know today. Without further ado, then, here are 10 interesting facts about medicine during the Regency period:

  1. There was no system of medical school training during the Regency, and only a very few hospitals.  Those practicing medicine professionally could be classified as physicians, surgeons, or apothecaries– and the amount of social prestige that each received went in that order, too, with physicians having the most, and apothecaries the least.  Physicians were also the most expensive.  In Jane Eyre, Jane mentions, “Mr. Lloyd, an apothecary, sometimes called in by Mrs. Reed when the servants were ailing; for herself and the children she employed a physician.”
  2.  Since there were no medical schools–and since studying cadavers to learn anatomy was technically illegal– medicine was taught almost exclusively out of books,  and not even up-to-date books, either.  In 1819, the licensing exam administered by the Royal College of Physicians  required the candidate to translate passages from first century medical texts!

  3.  Physicians did not conduct operations, set broken bones, or even do serious physical exams.  That would have meant working with their hands, which was not considered “gentlemanly”.  All of those medical procedures would have been carried out by a surgeon.  But anyone who thinks they would have chosen a surgeon over a physician if they’d been alive during the Regency might want to reconsider.  You didn’t actually need a licence to practice surgery.

  4.  An apothecary’s technical job was to make up prescriptions for the physician, but in many areas– especially rural ones– where there were no physicians, the apothecaries began to give medical advice, as well.

  5.  Since medical professionals were rare, expensive– and probably not terribly helpful much of the time– many women learned basic nursing skills to care for their own families, and had their own home remedies, too.  Martha Lloyd was a friend of Jane  Austen who shared the Austen ladies’ home at Chawton, and later in life married Jane’s brother Frank.  Martha collected many such recipes for home remedies, including one for whooping cough, which Jane herself suffered through.  Martha’s cure was:

Cut off the hair from the top of the head as large as a crown piece.  Take a piece of brown paper of the same size: dip it in rectified oyl of amber, and apply it to the part for nine mornings, dipping the paper fresh every morning.  If the cough is not remov’d try it again after three or four days.

  1.  Bleeding was a common “cure” for ailments of all kinds.  In 1824, the poet Byron died– largely because of the violent bloodletting his doctors insisted on as a remedy for a feverish cold.  Even soldiers who had lost a great deal of blood from their battle wounds would be bled to “reduce the blood flow”.  It’s not really any wonder that far more soldiers in the Napoleonic wars died of complications after the battle than died in combat.

Army Surgeon of the Napoleonic Era

  1.  Doctors did not become involved in childbirth until later in the 19th century.  During Jane Austen’s day, a midwife or a ‘monthly nurse’ might be called in to assist at a birth, but often the birth was handled by the mother’s female relations.
  •  Childbirth was dangerous, and death during or after childbirth was quite common.  Three of Jane Austen’s brothers lost their wives in childbirth.

  •  Dentists were found only in larger cities.  Thus in Emma, Harriet Smith has to travel to London to consult a dentist.  As with medical care, dentistry was rudimentary at best.  Jane Austen’s own mother lost her front teeth before the age of forty.

  •  In Jane Austen’s novels– as well as in real life during the era– many suffering from medical complaints would be ordered by their doctors to ‘take the waters’ at Bath.  Jane Austen herself lived in bath for part of her life– and although she did not care for the city very much, she set parts of two of her novels there: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.  Taking the waters referred to bathing and even drinking the water from the mineral hot springs in the city.  Gout, lameness, infertility, and diseases of the skin were just a few of the ailments said to be curable by the waters of Bath.  Though that didn’t mean that drinking the waters was considered pleasant.  One lady visitor complained that the famous mineral water tasted of rotten eggs!

  • A drawing by Thomas Rowlandson of the Pump Room at Bath
    A drawing by Thomas Rowlandson of the Pump Room at Bath

    43 Responses to Medicine During the Regency: 10 Interesting Facts

    1. My recollection is that in the book Persuasion, an apothecary was called to attend a broken collarbone. Still, I remember reading some late 18th century medical book, and bonesetter was considered a profession (or at least a specialty) all of its own.

      It used to be that barbers were often also surgeons and apothecaries. Though French (and set in Spain) The Barber of Seville depicts the title character, Figaro, giving shaves and haircuts but also applying poultices and administering bloodlettings. It probably had something to do with what kind of person would have tools such as sharp cutting implements and tweezers to work with; and a barber would need to know how to make pomades and tonics for hair that wouldn’t be too dissimilar to the ointments and liniments used for medicine.

      The other thing had to do with midwives… Princess Charlotte’s famously disastrous delivery was overseen by three medical men, one of whom I think used the title “accoucheur.” Basically, the fancy male version of a midwife.

    2. As much as I love to read romances from this era I thank GOD I was not born during those times. Medical care, hygiene, women’s lot in life, etc….just to name a very few reasons to love modern times.

    3. Oh no! And I thought my emergency room trip for my daughter was bad! Such an interesting post with interesting comments! Having had quite a few surgeries, including for childbirth, I’m pretty thankful to live in this era. Although nothing was really so life-threatening, I think. There’s something to be said for quality of life, for sure!

    4. Oh your poor boy, Anna!

      We had almost the same thing happen to us when our son was not quite 2. He tripped while running and fell into the rocking chair. The edge was not at all sharp, quite rounded actually, but it hit just right (or wrong, depending on how you look at it) about 1/4 of an inch above his left eyebrow. It was one of those “turn your back for a second” accidents, so poor Kyle comes screaming down the hallway, hand over his whole eye, and blood literally pouring down his face. Both our daughters freaked out, I mean FREAKED OUT, so they were hysterical, Kyle was hysterical, hubby was a bit frozen, and I was left to take control. Once I knew the whole eye wasn’t gouged out, we felt a bit better. Ice to stop the bleeding, rush to ER, to then wait forever with son who is now perfectly fine and climbing all over everything with this gaping wound (no longer bleeding) over his eye. 5 stitches — after being gushed over and loved on by everyone in the ER (he was such a cute kid!).

      He is 22 now and still has a scar over his eye, but, like the ones on his arm that came later after breaking his arm skateboarding, they are his proud, tough guy badges of honor! LOL! Chicks dig scars and tattoos, after all. Ha!!

      As for the medical history, well, I love it! The topic is a big passion for me. In fact, I’ll be giving a lecture on Regency medicine at this year’s JASNA AGM! Much of it is really scary, from our modern point of view, no doubt. But at the same time, I tend to examine the past from a different angle, as it were. Progress takes time, learning builds upon the discoveries of the past, and technology had a major part to play. All in all, while frightening from our perspective, medical practitioners and scientists were doing the best they could, and striving to improve. We would not be where we are now if not for them.

      Thanks for the lesson!

      • Oh my goodness, Sharon, what an experience! And I’m so sorry for being so slow to reply. This week has certainly added perspective to my life– as in, Wow, when no one in my family has stitches and/or a stomach bug (we’re lucky enough to have both at the moment), what once seemed busy now seems super easy! 🙂 I’m sure with your medical background the study of Regency medicine must be even more fascinating. As you say, they were doing the best with what they had to work with and the knowledge that they had.

    5. Thank you for the nice article but sorry to hear how it turned you into writing about medicine in Regency England. When I was in nursing school I had to write a paper on how nursing went from the beginning of time and how Florence Nightingale recruited women to work in nursing. I basically studied all of this and learned much from the P & P variation novels I have read in the past.
      Hope your little one is on the mend.

      • Florence Nightengale was an amazing, fascinating figure– that must have been a very interesting paper to write! And yes, thank you, he’s much better. Although he managed to pull half his stitches out by day 3 and then tripped and made it bleed again. Then got an infection. He’s definitely a rough-and-tumble kind of guy. 🙂 But overall, much better now!

    6. The medical schools were permitted 50 bodies per year for anatomy practice, but they really needed between 200-250 to meet the needs of their students. I did LOTS of research on “resurrectionists” (body snatchers) for my book The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy. The courts “assigned” a person’s remains to the medical schools for anatomy studies. Those donations from the judicial system did not meet their needs. Often, grave robbers were hired to find additional corpses. There is a great episode on History Detectives that discusses this situation and to which I reference in the Historical Notes at the end of my novel.
      Did you know that if a person rode through town with a naked body from a grave, it was not a crime? However, if he rode the body through town in its Sunday best, the culprit was prosecuted as a thief. The clothing had more value than the body.
      Someone in another comment mentioned the medical advances in America, as opposed to those England. Edinburgh/Scotland was also ahead of the English medical schools. Manchester was the center for the English efforts for some time.

    7. Hi Anna, when I was looking up some medical information for a short story I wrote I found that in general England was way behind what they did on the Continent in terms of Medicine and other things like drainage/sewage, and crop rotation. Can you imagine that everything was dumped into the Thames and that folks down the river drank that stuff. It’s a wonder folks lived as long as they did. Thanks for reminding us we have a lot to be grateful for. ~Jen Red~

    8. Anna, Thank you for your post. This was very interesting. It seemed like such a charming time and yet, it was also rather scary. Just the idea of a leech. Ewww…
      Glad your little fellow is feeling better.

    9. Thank you for this interesting post Anna. I am with the others on ‘bloodletting’ for I cannot see how that would help. Whenever I think I would like to have lived in regency times, I remember that it was not uncommon for women to die in childbirth. 🙁 I hope your baby is doing well.

      • Thank you, Brenda! If I can just convince him not to rip the stitches out before he heals up, he’ll be doing great. 🙂 Even back in my great-grandmother’s day, people used to say that pregnant women ‘had one foot in the grave’ because death in childbirth was so common. It’s hard to imagine.

    10. Thank goodness for today’s health care! Even in this day and age, as a kid I remember lots of remedies applied on me that were just old wives tales, ie: butter or Noxema on burns!

      • It’s true, Wendy– even now the old wives’ remedies persist. And then other times the old fashioned remedies do work– like honey to help with a cough, etc.

    11. An extremely interest post. I hope that your little one is doing well. Medicine was not to be trusted at that time and your thought provoking post made it fascinating.

      • Thank you, Anne! He’s doing much better. He doesn’t love our having to clean/care for the stitches, but he’s nearly back to his usual smiley self. 🙂 Medicine back then was definitely not anything I would want to trust!

    12. I am not a big fan of medication and such but the idea of bloodletting always makes me cringe. No thank you very much. LOL
      Glad your guy is doing alright.

      • Me, too, Stephanie– there are aspects of modern medicine that I also steer clear of unless absolutely necessary. But I think back then it would have been much worse!

    13. There are many things about the Regency I find appealing, but medical care is not one of them. I am glad your little one is on the mend. My oldest son had stitches twice before he was 3. Somehow he and I both l lived through the experience. Wonderful post.

      • Two rounds of needing stitches! Oh my, poor both of you. Now that it’s all over and I have perspective, I can say that it could have been so much worse (no broken bones, no lasting damage, etc etc). But in the moment, it’s awful when they’re so little and can’t understand what’s going on.

    14. Happy to hear the little man is doing better! It is so traumatizing for us, usually much more than for them! 😀 I am glad I live now rather than then! I have Rheumatoid Arthritis and I can only imagine the terrible things they would have had me do, or the hopelessness of nothing to be done!
      Great post! Thank you!

      • I just looked it up, and Rheumatoid Arthritis would probably have been treated with either bloodletting or leeching– putting leeches on the body and allowing them to suck your blood. (ew!!). Definitely better to be around now than then, although even now, I’m sure it must be very hard to endure.

        • I do have iv infusions of medication, but it is nowhere near as bad as leeches! LOL ICK! And we already know, that really does nothing for the underlying disease. I feel for the people who endured the pain and then the added anemia and illness that had to go along with the bloodletting and leeching. Yes, I’m very furtunate! 😀

          • I’m glad you have good medical care (with no leeches!), but so sorry you have to cope with that. You sound like you have a great attitude about it all. Best wishes to you!

    15. Anna, so sorry your little man had to endure stitches. Happy to hear he is on the mend. Thank you for sharing this informative post. We take for granted the medical care we have today.

      • Thank you! He is much better now. 🙂 It’s hard to even imagine the mentality that would have led to the medical practices back then. How could anyone take one look at a bleeding soldier and think, Clearly he needs to lose MORE blood? Mind-boggling.

    16. Thank you for this informational post Anna. I would’ve preferred not to be treated. Between blood letting and poor higeine no wonder the death rate was so high, even from minor illnesses and injuries. From your description of the waters of Bath, it must taste similar to the water at The Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Florida. Quite sulfuric. When I finally get to Bath I will have to taste it to compare the 2 (I’ve tried the former).

      • Deborah, I would definitely have taken Martha’s home remedies over “official” medical treatment. Gluing brown paper to your head might not have helped, but at least it wouldn’t kill you! Do you have plans to go to Bath in the near future? I was there when I was in college, and it’s an amazing city, so much to see.

          • I definitely hear you, I’m dying to go back to England and visit Bath and everywhere else on my bucket list. For me, it’s having such young kiddos that makes the idea of travel impossible for now. Someday, right? Fingers crossed for you that you get to go sooner rather than later. You will LOVE Bath whenever you make it there!

      • I think it’s a shame they said it was not the gentleman thing to do is use his hands, that’s so high society. Things would have been different if that wasn’t a rule. Ya know?

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