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Victorian Healthcare and Medicine: An Emerging Science in the 19th Century

Updated on February 26, 2020
Nathanville profile image

I love history; it forms the basis of my interest in genealogy and has an influence on our itinerary when on family holidays.

The Precarious Health Care in Victorian Britain and America

Victorian Health was precarious at the best of times. Victorian families were often large, as in previous generations, with eight or more children not being uncommon. The trend from the 18th century of mass migration from the surrounding villages to the cities and towns, seeking work, continued at an ever increased pace into the 19th century.

This led to overcrowding and poverty; disease was rife and child mortality high. The big tragedy is that due to the lack of understanding of disease and with medicine still in its infancy more often than not it was not the disease that killed the patient but the medicine.

By looking at articles published in Victorian newspapers this article takes a peek at Victorian attitudes towards the state of medical care; or at least the views of the better educated Victorians who knew of the problems and issues.

19th Century Public Health in Britain

Medical Advancements in the 19th Century

At the end of the 18th century Edward Jenner (1749-1823), an English physician and scientist had developed a vaccine against smallpox, which he first tested on a human subject in 1796; the world’s first vaccine. Having demonstrated its effectiveness Jenner was granted considerable sums of money to continue his work and by 1808, with government aid, the National Vaccine Establishment was founded. Vaccination against smallpox was increasingly used throughout the world from that time, and by the 1950s the world wide programme was made to eradicate smallpox; with global eradication of smallpox being certified by the World Health Organisation in 1980.

What was less understood at the time was the nature of diseases, what caused them, and how they spread. During the first half of the 19th century the link between squalor, uncleanliness and disease wasn’t well understood e.g. the spread of Cholera through contaminated water.

However, towards the end of the Victorian era these links were far better understood and cleanliness became a Victorian preoccupation; as so often depicted in literature of that time. Leading the way in enlightening government and the masses on the importance of hygiene was Florence Nightingale who became world famous for her pioneering work in establishing a link between hygiene and health.

Many other advances in medical practices were also being made during this period, including the introduction of anaesthetics which was first publically demonstrated by William Morton (1819-1868) in Massachusetts, America in 1846.

Old Hearing Aid which belonged to my great grandmother.
Old Hearing Aid which belonged to my great grandmother.

Cure or Kill

Victorian Medicine

The article below, entitled 'Doctors Disagree' published in a Victorian newspaper sums it all up rather eloquently.

Some of the common diseases and remedies used in the Victorian era and mentioned in the 19th century newspaper article below include:-

  • Consumption, better known these days as tuberculosis (TB) was very common in the Victorian Era.
  • Peruvian bark, also known as Jesuit's bark, was a well-known remedy for malaria and therefore likely to have little effect on consumption.
  • Mercury, which as we now know is poisonous, was commonly used during the Victorian era not just in medicines but also in many other products including paint.

Victorian Medicine
Victorian Medicine

Humorous Victorian Attitudes Towards Doctors

Recognition that Victorian Doctors didn't have the answers and that more often than not their medicines did more harm than good often appeared as short humorous articles in Victorian newspapers; below is a transcript of two humorous Victorian newspaper cuttings which shows this clearly:-

"A physician, passing by a stone mason's, bawled out to him,

"Good morning, Mr W-; hard at work, I see; you finish your gravestones as far as `In memory of,' and then you wait, I suppose, to see who wants a monument next?"

"Why, yes," replied the old man, resting for a moment on his mallet, "unless somebody is ill, and you are attending him, and then I keep right on!"


"Doctor, I want to thank you for your splendid medicine."

"It helped you, did it?" asked the doctor, very much pleased.

"It helped me wonderfully."

"How many bottles did you find it necessary to take?"

"Oh, I didn't take any of it. My uncle took one bottle, and I'm his sole heir."

Look on the Bright Side of Victorian Medication
Look on the Bright Side of Victorian Medication

Who Needs Doctors?

Or Their Medicines

These snippets of Victorian newspaper articles are published here thanks to my great-great grandfather, George Burgess (1829-1905) who during his working life saved over 500 newspaper articles and stuck them into his scrapbook.

George Burgess was fully aware of the dangers of seeing a doctor or taking their medicines and on several occasions makes this point in his diary; below is an extract from his diary where he also gives his own good sound advice on healthy living:-

"I have never been ill. I have never had any doctors - nor their medicines, so far.

I have aimed to preserve my health during my long life. Of course I have avoided all alcoholic drinks. I drink plenty of good water - and also, very freely of tea. I like it fairly strong - with plenty of good milk and sugar in it.

I eat heartily of all kinds of foods, but of course, I eat to live - I don't live to eat. And I am always at work - in the Garden - or in my office. And - I sleep well - being able to sit down and enjoy a sweet sleep several times through the day. But I set very high value on the Water drinking. Water is as necessary for cleansing the inside of a man, as the outside of a man. It reaches every vital organ - and streams through every avenue of his system - and refreshes, his whole being up with newness of life. I ought to think that these simple and natural rules for taking care of my health have preserved me - and have much helped me to have and enjoy good health and happiness on this my 70th birthday."

Victorian physician keeping the stone mason busy
Victorian physician keeping the stone mason busy

Florence Nightingale 1820-1910

In 1854 Florence Nightingale and volunteer nurses she’d trained took up duty in the Crimean War. It was here that, on seeing the horrific conditions of the wounded, that she developed her strict regime of cleanliness, hygiene and nursing practices.

The following year, in recognition of her work, the Nightingale Fund was established, part of which was used in 1960 to set up the Nightingale School at St Thomas Hospital in London, for training Nightingale nurses; the foundation of modern day nursing.

Florence Nightingale Biography

Further Reading

Free Online Viewing

Visit the Main Nathanville website to view more Victorian Newspaper articles on Health and Education.

Where you aware that many Victorian Medicines contain toxins e.g. mercury and opium etc?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Arthur Russ

Do you have any views on Victorian Health - Share your views with others

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    • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Russ 

      3 years ago from England

      Thanks to all for your feedback; yes it does show how medicine and healthcare has improved for the better since those times. I too shudder to imagine what it must have been like in those day, especially for the poor; although even for the wealthy, illness was somewhat a lottery.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      It would have been extremely scary to have a baby back then. My great grandmother died in child birth having her 5th child and she was only 28.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Great lens! I love the humorous bits the best. Humor is the best medicine, in my opinion :)

      Li Li

    • victoriahaneveer profile image


      7 years ago

      I shudder to imagine what it must've been like having an illness in those days or requiring treatment. Today it's all about pills and lotions (with some new age medicine thrown in too) but back then it was more about leaches and toxic medicines! Fascinating lens and insights.

    • debnet profile image


      8 years ago from England

      I have an interest in genealogy and have many birth, death and marriage certificates from throughout the Victorian era. It's tragic to see how many young children dies from such illnesses such as measels and things that can be treated quite simply nowadays.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Fantastic lens Nathanville and a good addition to Squidoo! Thanks for sharing!


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