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18th Century Medicine

Autor:   •  April 15, 2012  •  Essay  •  1,522 Words (7 Pages)  •  1,196 Views

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During the eighteenth century, England experienced great and radical change, such as the Industrial Revolution and the formation of a class based society. However, some aspects did not change so radically until sometime after. Medicine and health... Disease was rife during the eighteenth century, and people would often fall ill and die from many ailments which are largely unheard of in modern England. Many would died from all sorts of fevers and infections; one of the most serious being smallpox.

Smallpox was the scourge of the 18th century. The disease made no distinctions between age and social status. It infected and killed anyone. Before Dr. Edward Jenner's experiments with cowpox, people tried to contain the disease by practicing variolation, a form of inoculation.

Variolation was first used by the Chinese. It involved taking samples of smallpox pustules from patients who survived the disease and then infecting healthy patients through either the nose or skin. Most often, the patient contracted a minor case of the disease but not always, which made variolation a very frightening prospect.

It would not be until the late 18th century when man began to eliminate this disease. Dr. Edward Jenner, in 1796, experimented with the relationship between cowpox and smallpox. Cowpox is the milder, non-fatal form of the disease. He discovered that by inoculating healthy people with cowpox, it made them immune to the smallpox virus. He called this form of inoculation "vaccination" from vacca, Latin for cow, which was safer than variolation.

People also died from illnesses' that we would consider to be trivial today, such as stomach upsets and influenza.' There were a few aspects which changed in medicine around the later part of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, such as Erasmus Darwin's speculation of human evolution and the slow introduction of smallpox inoculation. However, it may be argued that it would be incorrect to imply that the period constituted a revolutionary turning point that transformed clinical medicine and gave physicians and surgeons greater powers to heal and cure.

Diseases that today are virtually eradicated through successful inoculation, vaccination, treatment or simply through sanitization and hygiene, are concepts which were not discovered until much later, ran rampant. Ailments such as gout, nervous maladies, scrofula, mental disorders and general debility were also common, and whilst these were not fatal they still afflicted many and generally reduced the well being of the population as a whole. The population reached unprecedented levels during the period but this was not due to a lower death rate despite the improvements to medicine. Instead, it was a result of an increased birth rate due to greater fertility. Unfortunately, the growth in population was mainly evident in the major cities where sanitization was poor and many lived in squalor, providing the perfect breeding ground for diseases.

Diseases such as '...typhus, typhoid, dysentery, scarlatina, influenza, measles, smallpox...' were just as common and lethal during this period. Smallpox was the only disease to which inoculation was introduced, albeit gradually.

Known as fringe medicine or quackery, '...a disparate body of health ideas...' became popular. The unorthodox practice incorporated '...highly commercial sale of patent medicines by unlicensed quacks; the still widespread use of traditional domestic medicines or self health remedies...' Many of these remedies were often little more than just colored water, or indeed sometimes more harmful than beneficial, for example the use of lead and arsenic.

Those who practiced this type of medicine were often referred to as quacks, and throughout history '...have essentially been treated individually, seen as loners, eccentrics or, as with James Graham,

cracked in the head.' These individuals were more salesmen than physicians, chemists or surgeons and often relied upon their charisma.

People would purchase their wares, sometimes in the form of a chest or

cabinet stocked full of a variety of remedies, poultices and treatments for many illnesses.

An Example of one such medicine is The Poor Man's Friend which remained available until the mid-20th century, but made the news in 2003 when Bridport Museum bought the secret recipe for £480. Its composition, was 'nothing more than 95% lard and beeswax'. Nothing, that is, except the other 5% - a fragrant but dangerous concoction of mercurous chloride, sugar of lead, mercuric oxide, zinc oxide, bismuth oxide, red pigments and oils of rose, bergamot and lavender.

The case of this anxious young man who responded to one of Dr Hammond's advertisements. The reply asked for two guineas for a 'self-curative' belt and he sent the money, but the package he received in return contained only 'some bottles of medicine

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