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:
- 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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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!