Victorian Medical Practices That’ll Make You Glad You Live Today

Chlorine for Typhoid It seems like a silly question to ask. Who in their right mind would use disinfectants for medications, right? Well, in the early… Trista - December 20, 2022
National Geographic

Chlorine for Typhoid

It seems like a silly question to ask. Who in their right mind would use disinfectants for medications, right? Well, in the early 1900s, they did just that. Disinfectants like chlorine, carbolic, sulfur, lime, and charcoal were all used to treat certain conditions. Chlorine was first used to treat a water main during a typhoid epidemic. They put it into the water, thinking it could kill the disease. Plus, they added lime to water with the idea of treating illnesses. Lime is nontoxic, but it seems crazy to use it for that specific purpose. As far as sulfur goes, it was used in the rooms of the sick and infected to help cleanse the area of sickness.

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Phrenology for Mental Health

Mental Health treatment was kind of hit or miss in the early 1900s. Doctors believed in the power of Phrenology. Phrenology involves feeling the skull to measure bumps and dips that showcase mental traits. Bumps in certain areas would indicate traits such as aggression or sadness. Doctors used this highly irregular method until the 20th century when they finally deemed it no longer usable for the study of mental health. So, if you had bumps in certain areas of your skull, doctors would treat you accordingly, even if you weren’t showcasing symptoms of said bump. If you ask us, it seems like a messy way to diagnose mental illness. Nowadays, doctors treat mental health with a variety of medications and therapies.

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Hot Irons for Cauterizing

Back in the early days of surgery, it was touch and go as far as the knowledge needed to perform surgeries to save lives. Doctors didn’t know how to stop bleeding in patients, so they used hot irons to cauterize the wounds. This seems like a crazy way to stop bleeding, and it also seems dangerous. They had no anesthesia to keep patients asleep throughout the surgery, so they likely felt everything was happening. It sounds terrifying! Using a hot iron is not only unsanitary, but it could also damage the nerves in your body, especially if it is a large iron that takes up more space than necessary. This makes us glad to be alive today with our medical advancements!

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Treating Only Symptoms = Shorter Life Span

Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, doctors relied on treating symptoms, not the cause of illnesses. Doctors did not widely understand medicine at the time, and each doctor had different training, so it was up to your individual doctor to decide how to treat your particular illness. If your symptoms included diarrhea or constipation, your doctor would treat the symptoms, such as an achy stomach. Medicine has come a long way since the early days. While only treating the symptoms, many patients would come down with other illnesses, only to die before they received proper treatment. This is why the average life expectancy was only 40 years of age. Many of the remedies for treating the ill back in the early 1900s are now illegal.

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Cleanliness In Hospitals and At Home

Cleanliness wasn’t next to godliness back in the late 1800s and early 1900s when it came to medical tools, offices, and even homes. Doctors wouldn’t wash medical equipment like saws, scalpels, bedding, and gowns between patients. While medicine wasn’t widely understood, these doctors just did what they could to treat patients’ symptoms. Often, patients would meet with their doctor only to leave with another type of illness from improperly cleaned medical tools. Hygiene wasn’t as important as today, either, or people would go weeks without a bath. We bet it makes you glad you live today with all of our proper amenities!

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The Dangers of Surgery

Surgery was dangerous during Victorian times, but not for the reasons you might think. The danger was in the fact that everything was dirty. While a lot of patients passed away on the operating table, some survived, only to die later at home from infection. Doctors didn’t believe in cleanliness back then. Operating rooms would be used repeatedly for different patients without being cleaned. Surgical tools were often left bloody. One of the top priorities at the time was keeping the patient alive when it should have included things to keep them healthy, like cleaning surgical instruments. When a patient would come back to see the doctor with a pus-filled wound, the doctor would believe the wound was healing instead of becoming more infected. It was a dangerous time to be alive! Cleanliness during surgery didn’t become a priority until the early 1900s.

Where Do We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Bloody hands, dirty knives: The horrors of Victorian medicine | AAMC

10 Dubious Victorian Cures From the First Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy | Mental Floss

Victorian Medicine – Simple History

What Medicines Were Used in the 1800s?

Health & Medicine in the 19th Century – Victoria and Albert Museum

Gruesome and Shocking Facts About Victorian Surgery