Visiting a doctor in the 21st century isn’t fun, but visiting a doctor in Regency England was often life threatening, and your treatment depended on how much you could afford to pay. This is why home remedies were tried before the doctor was summoned. There were three medical practitioners functioning during the time of Regency England. Physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries, but I think midwives should also have a place and have included them below.
We shall begin with the physicians, who are considered to have better training and experience. The physician often came from a genteel background. They were the second or third sons of a gentleman. The doctors attended prestigious schools and earned their degree at a university. These universities were associated with various hospitals. Their training did not include an apprenticeship, nor did they practice on actual patients. A doctor’s education consisted of listening to medical procedures taught in a lecture hall.
Doctors were considered expensive and hired by the members of the aristocracy. They also liked to be paid in a discreet manner, since theoretically, gentlemen did not accept money for work. Only physicians that were licensed by the Royal College of Physicians were addressed by the title of doctor. If a doctor was staying with a family, he was likely to be invited to dine with them.
Surgeons were not regarded as highly as doctors, nor were they like the surgeons of today. Surgeons in Regency England were more like general practitioners, and usually had an apprenticeship under a doctor. In 1815, the laws of apprenticeship changed to require a five-year apprenticeship and a six-month training course to receive a license as a surgeon, prior to this they were not very educated. Most surgeons of the period learned from on the job training. Medical knowledge at the time was obtained through trial and error, where experiments were conducted and observations were made and noted in journals. These medical journals were a source of knowledge for those in the medical field, unfortunately these journals were expensive, so poorer doctors often shared the subscription and passed the journals amongst each other.
Surgery was performed without anesthesia, and was usually limited to amputation or noninvasive surgeries, like cyst removal. Ether wasn’t discovered until 1842. Before this time, people who needed surgery were given large does of alcohol, opium, cannabis, or mandrake, which were not very effective. Less effective measures of pain relief were ice, hypnosis, bloodletting, and nerve compression. If the pain didn’t kill you, then an infection might, since the chances of dying from infection were very high. Because the surgeons performed amputations, and lacked the university education, they were seen below doctors in social circles, and thus if staying with a family he would likely dine with the upper servants.
Apothecaries were considered the poor man’s doctor. They were apprenticed to learn about drugs. In essence, they were Regency pharmacists and deemed as tradesmen. But in villages or rural areas, where doctors were scarce, it was the apothecary who would come to your home to treat you. The problem was that many of these elixirs given for treatment were toxic. See my early blog on Drugs and Addiction. Apothecaries were seen even further down on the social scale and fall beneath the surgeons. An apothecary’s chance of staying to eat with the family was slim, but he would dine with the servants, if invited at all.
Midwives and Women
Women during the era acted as midwives, nurses, and herbal healers. But during the Regency, more men began to enter into midwifery. Midwives delivered the majority of babies. Forceps had been invented by this time for difficult births, but female midwives often wouldn’t use them, while the males would. Cases of childbed fever increased, due to forceps use. C-sections were rarely used because of the high rate of infection. An obstructed baby would be killed and removed in pieces. If the mother died, they would try to save the baby, but the procedure had to be done quickly or the baby wouldn’t receive oxygen. Husbands were often consulted before these life or death tactics were taken.
A few doctors were knighted for doctoring the royal family, and although the aristocracy hired doctors, they did not invite them to their parties. Most of the doctors treated patients in towns and villages, and they rarely visited the hospitals. People were often treated inside of their home. The hospitals were mostly located in the cities, and not used by the majority of the population. Hospitals were considered places of contagion.
Items used by a Regency doctor often included the black leather medical bag, lancets, scalpels, syringes, and bleeding cups. The Frenchman, René Laennec, invented the stethoscope during the Regency era in 1816. Hand washing and changing bandages were not concerns, so illnesses often spread or caused infections. You can see more on medical treatments by referring to my blog on Leeches and Bloodletting.
Although medicine was hit or miss, new medicines were discovered, such as quinine, calamine, proven herbal remedies, and others. Edward Jenner improved upon the small pox vaccination during the Regency, making it the first infectious disease to be restrained in this manner.
A special thanks to thebeaumonde.com and Roy and Lesley Adkins, Jane Austen’s England and romancingthepast.com