Thursday, January 19, 2012

picks from picard: health

This blog post on Liza Picard's Victorian London: The Tale of a City 1840-1870 will focus on Victorian health, medicine, and all such related topics.

image source: Musee McCord Museum

There were general hospitals, hospitals specializing in certain ailments (such as consumption) and even children's hospitals.  Hospitals were "voluntary"- this means that they depended on voluntary contributions to operate.  No state-run medical centers here.  As a result admittance to a hospital was very difficult for non-emergency cases.  One had to submit a petition and a properly filled out form to have their case examined and decided whether they would gain admittance to a hospital.  Money and influence helped "applicants" get their foot in the door during the Weekly General Admittance Day.

Medical schools connected to hospitals rose during the nineteenth century.  Before that a system of apprenticeship to a doctor was the more common method, although it still was used in the 19th century to produce doctors and other medical professionals in place of formal schooling.

Nursing training, however, was rather poor until the mid-19th century, when Florence Nightingale hit the nursing scene. At this time nurses were either members of some religious order, well-meaning but sadly untrained society ladies, or a secular individual who, more often than not, tended to have a reputation for ignorance in their trade and the habit of drinking, especially while on the job.  At the time there were differing opinions on the purpose of nurses:
What was a nurse supposed to do?  Should she look to the religious orders, and offer the patients spiritual consolation, ignoring their need for a bed-pan?  Or was she there to look after their verminous, stinking, diseased bodies and follow the doctor's...instructions?  Was she to be a lady or a ward maid? (p.185)
Florence Nightingale, a reclusive upper class woman disinterested in the normal female pursuits of marriage and family, worked tirelessly and obsessively to solve the problem, opening up a School of Nursing in 1860, to create sober, educated, quiet, clean, organized angels of the hospital wards.

Scientific methods of examining sick patients was replacing the leechings of the 18th century.  Stethoscopes, clinical thermometers, antiseptics, and improvements in microscopy were coming to the forefront.  It was beginning to be suggested that bandages not be used more than once, especially on gangrenous patients, and that operating rooms and surgical implements be disinfected with carbolic after each use.  There were old fuddy-duddy holdouts who wanted to do things as they had always done them, of course, but the connection between cleanliness and infection was beginning to be understood by the younger generation and applied.

Another advance was in anesthesia.  Before the anesthetics available were opium and alcohol.  By the 1840s chloroform had been  found to be very useful for knocking out a patient for surgeries, and was even used by Queen Victoria and other Victorian women to lessen the pain during several of their childbirths.

Many people were afraid to go to hospitals out of fear that their bodies would be taken away for dissection, which happened quite often to the poorer classes.  Deathbeds were watched closely, but if a person had no relatives or friends to take their body away from a workhouse or flat then the body usually ended up on the dissecting table.

Quack medicines were rampant, as were morphine and laudanum.  People easily overdosed on laudanum, a derivative of opium, but no restrictions were placed on the sale of these chemicals.  Only the sale of arsenic was regulated due to its common use in poisonings.

Epidemics were common- smallpox (despite the availability of a vaccine), typhus, cholera, and influenza to name a few.  The smallpox vaccine was enforced in both 1833 (not strongly) and 1867, reducing the cases of that disease.  The causes of these diseases were not always understood- some people believed in the miasma theory, where a bad smell directly caused people to be ill.  But during the Great Stink of 1858, in which parts of the Houses of Parliament became too smelly to use, no epidemic of any disease occurred.

For home nursing, the following "medicines" were commonly used for various ailments, although were by no means the only methods:

  • wine and gin
  • exercise- walking combined with the use of dumbells
  • reading aloud
  • willow bark for the ague
  • arsenic (for what diseases it doesn't say)
  • cold-baths and sea-bathing for consumption (or tuberculosis)
  • apply a bellows or the "kiss of life" (a.k.a. basic rescue breathing) for those who have appeared to died from drowning
  • a warm bath and laxatives for chickenpox
  • wine and "even" spirits for typhus
  • laxatives and leeches, along with "keeping up a state of nausea and vomiting" for the whooping cough

Florence Nightingale also wrote on the care of a sick person in the home, advising such small helpful comforts as: placing the sickbed near the window so the sick person could look outside; keeping the patient informed of developments so they are not apprehensive about the state of their condition; visits from babies; pet animals in the sickroom; sunny and open rooms; outdoor exercise; plenty of amusement and play; less schooling; and good meals.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! I think it's funny that putting a sick person near a window so they could look out had to be suggested to people. Had no one thought of this before? Lol.

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