Access to reasonable doctors and medical care that can save our lives in an emergency is such a given in the developed world today, that we don’t really consider what life might be like without it. When we think about the regency era, because we are thinking of England, and a fairly sophisticated society, its easy
to forget, or not realise, what a minimal medical capability there actually was then.

Certainly, they had hospitals – but they were not like the hospitals of today.
Nor were their doctors like those of today.  Much of the scientific research that has led to our medicines and ability to deal with disease had yet to be done.

Think about it –

  • There were no antibiotics and only the barest understanding of what caused infection
  • There was generally no careful cleanliness in medical situations
  • There was little understanding of the idea that apparently ‘clean’ water could carry bacteria etc
  • There was no safe general anaesthetic – there was not even the use of ether for that purpose until 1846 approx.  All major operations were done with you either awake, or dosed with laudanum (an opiate).
  • Due to that, appendicitis was pretty much a death sentence.
  • Many women died in childbirth, because, if the child was breech and could not be turned, or there were other complications, a caesarian section was certain death for the mother.  It was not performed successfully, where both mother and child lived, until 1881.
  • Even quite minor infections of cuts and scratches could lead to death, as the infection could not easily be stopped, and there was little knowledge of effectively sterilising cuts.
  • Many ‘doctors’ still believed in the concepts that used things like bleeding the sick person to attempt to treat things – thus weakening an already weak person, and often hastening death.
  • Doctors often did not bother with hand-washing, and other infection preventing activities, because they did not believe there was a need.
  • Doctors also often recommended keeping sick rooms closed up and dark, which did nothing to help with healing.
  • The most effective healers were either women who had studied herbal healing, passed down through families in many villages, and men who had been ‘barber surgeons’ on the battlefield – where the main aim was to keep the injured soldiers alive, by whatever method they could – hence they lacked prejudice and tried whatever was suggested, or appeared to work.
  • Many children died very young, through illness and accident, because vaccines were only just starting to be invented, and the sort of childhood diseases that are now rare in the world ran rampant through the population, with little available but hope to cure the child.
  • being a doctor was also not very well respected as a profession in Regency times, although that was beginning to change, with the increasing persistence of a few men who chose the profession through a genuine care for people, and began to push research along.

The only significant positive about all of this, is that everyone was exposed to all sorts of things, from the moment that they were born, and, if they survived that first few years, they had, as a result, an immune system of outstanding strength.  Most modern people from developed countries, dropped back in those times, would succumb to all sorts of nasty things immediately – we have been so protected from disease, our immune systems are just not set up to cope with that sort of onslaught!

So, next time you wish to be living in Regency times, wearing beautiful gowns and dancing at balls, think carefully – how would you face that sort of medical situation?