Medicine 100 Years Ago

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Assoc. Prof. Warwick Carter


"Hysteria generally occurs in females between the ages of 12 and 45"

So says a medical text book of 100 years ago. It goes on to say that "the present cruel method of bringing up young ladies favours the development of the disease by rendering the whole system delicate and nervous. They are deprived of sunlight, pure air, active labour and exercise. Hot rooms, crowding the intellect to the neglect of the body, solitary vice and novel reading are among the many causes of this disease".

Given the same circumstances today, most of us would probably be hysterical, and one's mind can barely grasp what solitary vices these young ladies nurtured!

100 years ago there were no antibiotics, no vaccinations against childhood diseases, no blood pressure treatments, no effective treatments of heart disease, cancer, peptic ulcers or even hysteria. Most medications were herbal concoctions,and certainly there were no synthetic medications. The doctors of this time often had little to offer except their time and compassion, and this they offered with the assistance of the knowledge available to them.

Sciagraphs (now known as X-rays) were just coming into regular use, although they were more a sideshow trick than a useful diagnostic tool.

Medical treatment was also expensive at 5 shillings (50 cents) a consultation when the average wage was £3 a week. By modern day standards that's about $60 a visit.

There were few specialists in those days. Most doctors were "Jacks of all trades", and performed their own surgery and obstetrics. Private hospitals were the norm, and some church run institutions were very good, but other privately run hospitals were little more than a few converted bedrooms at the back of an old house.

Treatments and attitudes have certainly changed over the years. It was considered proper that "married couples should adopt more generally the rule of sleeping in separate rooms. In this way, troublesome temptations are escaped, and a rational temperance would be practised without inconvenience".

Little was known about the method of spread or the cause of infections. It was considered that mumps was due to "a specific morbid miasma, generated during peculiar conditions of the atmosphere".

Infertility was considered to be caused by "failure of intercourse, the improper use of aphrodisiacs, masturbation and sexual excesses". Masturbation itself, or "self pollution" came in for considerable comment in old texts, and was thought to cause "epilepsy, softening of the brain, insanity and moral imbecility. The victim must be put in a straight jacket with his hands tied behind his back to prevent the inevitable consequences of speedy insanity and death".

The insane were incarcerated rapidly, often with minimal assessment, and even less treatment. A trip to the asylum to watch the insane at play was an amusing day's outing at the turn of the century.

Many methods of painless birth were espoused, including a tea brewed from the "blue cohosh" that "acts most satisfactorily, making the pains regular and effective, and making the doctor's attendance for less than 6 hours the rule".

Some of the more fascinating treatments found in old books include the "management of apparent death by lightening (sic) strike". "A bucket of cold water poured upon the head revives some, but if this fails a battery should be procured and a current of electricity should be passed from the base of the head down the spine to the extremities of the limbs". This is not quite as silly as it at first seems. If the battery was of sufficient power, it may have done the same job as electrocardioversion does today in restarting the heart.

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