Fine Healthy Leeches, Victorian medicine in St Neots

Liz Davies presented aspects of the various treatments and cures which began during the reign of George III and accelerated during the industrial revolution. New ideas and experimental treatments appeared with travel to and from Europe. Diagnoses were not as accurate as today because there was little medical training. Lists of the various ailments ‘diagnosed’ included scarlet fever, ague, non specific ague, flu, and were mostly imprecise. 

Later TB, known at the time as consumption or phthsis killed 1 in 5. During this time ailments were treated by apothecaries, ‘surgeons’ and druggists, and many proprietary medicines were peddled. They included calomel (mercury based), laudanum (opium based) and arsenic compounds. They did have an effect which made you think they worked, but mostly were harmful and often deadly. Leeches were often used to take blood and remove the bad humours. In 1793 members of the Huntingdonshire Medical and Surgical Society would gather and discuss cases. One of their members devoted one day per week to attend the
poor with the other days in private practice. When hospitals were established, it was not possible to attend without being sponsored by a letter from a benefactor, otherwise you went to the workhouse infirmary. The benefactors were the wealthier citizens who subscribed to the hospital and were allowed to sponsor 5 patients. Licencing of medical practitioners did not begin until around 1800 and the British Medical Association only began in 1836.

Ointments and pills produced by Thomas Holloway in 1837 were advertised and sold successfully, although analysis more recently showed that there was little in them to have much effect. However, the sale of there items made Thomas a millionaire who went on to found the Royal Holloway College in London, which was one of the first to provide higher education for women.

Later developments in this era included ether as an anaesthetic in 1846 which was succeeded by chloroform as a safer option, and was used by Queen Victoria during childbirth of Leopold.

Looking back at the mostly ill-informed treatments makes us grateful to live now, and for the formation of the NHS in 1948.
Brian Lake

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