History of medicine in 19th century

Introduction: History of medicine in 19th century. During the 19th century, after decades of relying on medieval doctrine, medicine changed with several advances and theories. Scientists and doctors began better understanding the causes of diseases and illnesses, making them easier to treat.

Surgery became more humane. Earlier, there were a few ways to reduce the pain. Today, when you go in for surgery, you are seen by an anesthesiologist who puts you to sleep to make the surgery as painless as possible.

Earlier, people were often alert and awake during these surgeries, dealing with severe pain. By the 19th century, nitrous oxide was used during surgeries, making the procedure much more humane.

Advances in microscope technology made it easier for scientists to observe microscopic phenomena. They could observe cells and their behavior and use this information to inform their research and theories.

These developments led many doctors and scientists to develop theories that played an essential role in the development of medicine.

History of medicine in 19th century

Medicine in the 19th century

Diseases and epidemics of the 19th century included long-running epidemic threats such as smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, and scarlet fever. In addition, cholera appeared as an epidemic threat and spread worldwide in six pandemics in the nineteenth century. 

The epidemics of the 19th century were faced without the medical advances that made the epidemics of the 20th century rarer and less deadly. Microorganisms (viruses and bacteria) were discovered in the 18th century.

Still, in the late 19th century, the experiments of Lazzaro Spallanzani and Louis Pasteur completely disproved spontaneous generation, giving rise to the germ theory. They also allowed Robert Koch’s discovery of microorganisms to be a cause of disease transmission.

Thus, for much of the 19th century, there was only the most basic, common sense understanding of the causes, amelioration, and treatment of epidemic disease. However, the 19th century marked a turning point in medicine.

These included the first uses of chloroform and nitrous dioxide as anesthesia, essential discoveries in pathology and the perfection of the autopsy, and advances in our understanding of the human body.

Medical institutions were also changing to the new hospital style in an attempt to prevent the spread of disease, and the overcrowding from mixing of the poor and the sick was common. It is very prevalent and seen as a result of urban life.

Problems arose as governments and medical professionals at the time tried to control the spread of the disease. They still did not know what caused the disease. So, as people in authority try to make scientific leaps and discover the cause of these epidemics, entire communities will be lost in the grip of terrible diseases.

Search for possible cures.

During these many outbreaks, members of the medical profession quickly began trying different treatments to treat their patients. During a cholera epidemic in 1832, a London doctor, Thomas Latta, discovered that he could significantly increase the survival rate of his patients by injecting a saline solution into their arms.

However, due to the wide range of drugs being treated as curative and  his techniques failed to gain widespread adoption. Many other medical discoveries in the 19th century could not gain traction for similar reasons.

With the increased circulation of mass media and less peer review of material in medical journals, almost anyone with or without proper education can publish a potential cure for a disease.  

Real practicing medical professionals also had to contend with ever-expanding pharmaceutical companies ready to provide new elixirs and promising cures for the epidemics of the day.

Escaping the medical chaos was a legitimate and life-changing treatment. The late 19th century marked the beginning of the widespread use of vaccines.

The cholera bacterium was isolated in 1854 by the Italian anatomist Filippo Pacini, and a vaccine, the first to immunize humans against the bacterial disease, was developed in 1885 by the Spanish physician Jaume Ferran i Clua and by Russian–Jewish bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine in July 1892.

A significant response and potential cure to these epidemics was improved city sanitation. Before this, sanitation was deplorable, and sometimes attempts at improved sanitation often exacerbated disease, especially during cholera epidemics, because their understanding of disease relied on the miasma (bad air) theory.

Edwin Chadwick researched sanitation during the first cholera epidemic and used quantitative data to link poor living conditions to disease and reduced life expectancy. As a result, the Board of Health in London took measures to improve drainage and ventilation around the city.

Unfortunately, these measures helped clean up the city but further polluted the River Thames (the primary drinking water for the town), and the epidemic worsened.

What medicine was used in the 19th century

At the dawn of the 19th century, ancient theories still heavily influenced medicine, particularly the humoral theory proposed by Hippocrates and Galen.

This theory posited that health was maintained by a balance of the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Imbalances were thought to cause disease, and treatments aimed at restoring balance through methods like bloodletting, purging, and herbal remedies.

Despite these outdated practices, the early 19th century also saw the beginning of a shift towards more scientific approaches to medicine. The publication of Edward Jenner’s work on vaccination in 1798, which demonstrated the effectiveness of cowpox material in preventing smallpox, marked a turning point in the fight against infectious diseases. Jenner’s work laid the groundwork for immunology and preventive medicine.

Medicine has changed significantly over the centuries. Treatments used in the 19th century included quack potions for legitimate cures, and some helped illuminate the field of science today.

Common drugs used in the 19th century included:

  • Pain relievers such as opium, morphine, phenacetin, and acetanilide
  • Antipyretics (fever medicines) such as willow bark and meadowsweet
  • Cathartic from various plants to stimulate bowel movements and cleanse the lower part of the stomach
  • Opiates to fight diarrhea and cough
  • Cocaine to relieve toothache or mouth pain
  • Camphor to soothe itchy skin
  • For the treatment of arsenic and mercury-obsessed diseases, chiefly syphilis
  • Disinfectants such as carbolic, chlorine, lime, charcoal, and sulfur
  • Alternative therapies such as massage, caustics, blisters, hot baths, wraps, and gargles

Dosage methods contained powders, pills, tablets, gelatin capsules, pastilles, lozenges, mixtures, tinctures, and emulsions. Ointments, lotions, and plasters were applied externally, while enemas, suppositories, pessaries, and inhalations were intended to be taken through body openings.

What medical theory was followed in the 1800s?

Many 19th-century medicines and procedures were based on theories developed by the Roman physician Galen. 

According to this theory, the human body comprises four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The relative amount and predominance of each humor determines each individual’s health, disease, and mood.

  • Blood: Sanguine temperament
  • Phlegm: Mucous disposition
  • Jaundice: Choleric or bilious temperament
  • Black bile: Melancholic mood

Changes in disease prevention – improving public health

The late 19th century saw many changes, many of which were led by the government, to improve the health of the British public.

Edwin Chadwick and the 1848 Public Health Act

In 1842, a government official named Edwin Chadwick published his report on the sanitary conditions of the laboring population. He did detailed research, which showed that the number of people living in cities was minimal. 

Expectations of life Compared to people living in rural areas. Chadwick concluded that it made for dirty and brutal living conditions. He recommended a better supply of clean water and regular garbage removal.

The government did not immediately intervene. Nevertheless, in 1848, they passed the first Public Health Act. This law encouraged towns in England and Wales to establish health boards and provide clean water. However, this had little impact as these measures were optional and expensive.

Joseph Bazalgette and the ‘Great Stink’

In 1858, there was a severe heat wave in London. Because of this, the stench of the River Thames, where human waste ended up, worsened. It came to be known as the ‘Great Stink.’ The River Thames is close to the Houses of Parliament, and the stench is so foul that the MPs themselves can smell it!

As a result, the government acted. Joseph Bazalgette, an engineer, was employed to produce a network of sewers under the streets of London. By 1866, most of London was connected to new sewers. This removed waste from where people lived, reducing cholera’s risk and potential spread.

Conclusion: History of medicine in 19th century

The 19th century was a transformative period in the history of medicine, characterized by the transition from traditional practices to modern scientific approaches. Advances in pathology, microbiology, surgery, and technology collectively revolutionized medical practice and laid the foundations for contemporary medicine.

The discoveries and innovations of this era improved the understanding and treatment of diseases and established the principles of medical professionalism and public health that continue to shape healthcare today.

Despite these outdated practices, the early 19th century also saw the beginning of a shift towards more scientific approaches to medicine. The publication of Edward Jenner’s work on vaccination in 1798, which demonstrated the effectiveness of cowpox material in preventing smallpox, marked a turning point in the fight against infectious diseases. Jenner’s work laid the groundwork for immunology and preventive medicine.

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