Health and Medical Beliefs in the Victorian Era

Cold air and foul smells caused illness.  Or so most believed.  This was the “miasma” theory.  Because disease was carried by bad smells, surgeons felt free to operate while wearing the same coat, growing ever more stiff with blood and body fluids, for years.  Joseph Lister, inventor of aseptic technique (the notion surgeons should wash their hands, don gloves, and avoid cross contamination while poking about in peoples’ innards) once famously rebuked a physician who, after each surgery, wiped his scalpel on the bottom on his boot before going on to the next patient.  I doubt the offending doctor listened.  Many of Lister’s fellow physicians considered him a neat freak, a scold, and a bit of hysteric.  But he still got “Listerine” named after him.

That Victorian character described as having a “squint” or a “cast to the eye”?  Nowadays, we’d call he or she cross-eyed.   In the 1800s, there was no surgical intervention possible, so society was far more accepting of those with an eye that turned in toward the nose or drifted out toward the wall.  It wasn’t even a detriment to romance.  Once I read a novel which mentioned a pretty blonde girl “with a cast to her eye” dancing with all the eligible young men.  Misaligned eyes, like cataracts or sudden blindness (probably from glaucoma or retinal detachment) were just part of life.

The leading cause of death in the nineteenth century was … Tuberculosis.  A female between the ages of 15 and 35 had a 50% chance of dying of consumption.  (Just like Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge!)  But around mid-century, Victorians won a huge victory against another scourge, smallpox.  In an astonishingly inclusive move, Parliament soon acted to make vaccination free.  But human nature being what it is, they eventually had to make not getting vaccinated against the law.


Victorian novels, personal diaries, and letters are filled with complaints of headaches.  Some believe those headaches came from all the ARSENIC.  Even a gracious home was filled with it — in the carpet, the wallpaper, and the upholstery, not to mention books, paint, cosmetics, and toys.  Makes you wonder if two hundred years from now, folks will marvel how we managed to live so long while consuming high fructose corn syrup and walking around with mobile phones pressed to our skulls.

Opium was readily available, legal, and stamped with the British Imperial seal.  Which was probably good, considering whatever ailed you wasn’t likely to be cured, only endured.  The Victorian Era had an interesting libertarian slant.  People felt free to lecture you about vices — tobacco, prostitutes, gin, and the hookah.  But all were still legal.

The uterus made females acutely prone to melancholia, mania, and of course — hysteria.  “Female hysteria” was a catch-all phrase for almost anything, including sadness, defiance, angry outbursts and disobedience.  Eventually some doctor decided the appropriate treatment was — wait for it — south-of-the-border massage.  The only problem?  Many docs felt the process was extremely time-consuming, not to mention tedious, bringing their patients to that climatic finale.  (Is it any wonder some of these ladies kept behaving badly and returning to their physicians for treatment?)  By 1870, someone finally invented a vibrating machine, sold only to doctors, to satisfy the female hysterics more quickly and increase patient turnover.

Men never showed weakness.  Which probably subtracted as many years off their lives as anemia and overwork combined.  The rules for a man were mostly emotional.  He could be bright but not smart.  He could be neat but not foppish.  He couldn’t show too much interest in his children (effeminate) or expect his wife to welcome his attentions in the bedroom.  He could never show fear or shed tears, even when injured.  And a man who disgraced himself through bad investments or public humiliation had only one recourse: to shoot himself.  Remember during the stock market crash of 1929, all those ruined Wall Street executives — mostly middle-aged men — tossing themselves out of windows?  They were the sons of Victorians.  In general, I hope the idea that financial ruin necessitates suicide died with them.  Though I wouldn’t have minded if Bernie Madoff had decided to carry on the tradition.

Think my next post will be something whimsical.  The ABCs of Steampunk, perhaps… something light for a Friday…

10 thoughts on “Health and Medical Beliefs in the Victorian Era

  1. Hysterics…yeah…sigh…Frightening to think about.Don't forget Semmelweis in there with aseptic technique over in Vienna. He was pushing it just a few years later for delivery of babies. I like this historical stuff. When you add little bits and pieces into your writing, it makes it come alive!

  2. That's almost certainly WHY vices abounded, the only way that average Victorian male could get any fun out of life was to sneak off to "houses". If they just stayed home and helped out their wives with their hysteria, they might have been better off and lived longer.

  3. @Katja: Almost entirely actual books. I started this one day in the school library when I was 15 (and supposed to be working on my math homework) and have continued informally ever since. One of the most useful textbooks I've found recently is Daily Life in Victorian England, 2nd Edition, by Sally Mitchell. Also Lee Jackson's A Dictionary of Victorian England, which is not a textbook but a collection of snippets from newspapers, articles, etc. from the time. However, I keep INTENDING to start some serious online research. Apparently Google documents can access so much from that time directly, and for free. I just need to get comfortable searching on the web instead of the library.

  4. Great post!I am a new nurse who also loves the history of this period. No surprises that i write in Historical and steampunk genres. (currently doing a contemporary fiction though about leukemia of all things.)Great post!! i am also doing the A-Z challenge.good luck i will follow your blog with interest :-)sarah

  5. Good info! I was surprised to learn (many years ago) of the high prevalence of syphilis among the upper class of men in that era. I agree with Jenx – staying home and devoting themselves to "south-of-the-border massage" would have solved a couple of societal conundrums.

  6. @ Katrina Most …I almost wanted to bring up syphilis and other STDs as a topic among those who write books set before 1950. Many male characters, especially the dashing romantic ones (Rhett Butler is just one of a million examples) will be shown frequently prostitutes all the time, with no ill effects, of course. (Talk about an unromantic subplot.) I feel guilty about fudging stuff like that, though I've certainly done it. Wonder if others feel the same.

  7. "Apparently Google documents can access so much from that time directly, and for free."Did not know that! Wow, I've been ignorant and thought google docs are just for things peeps write themselves. Need to look into this and see what they got. Thanks for the info!

  8. @No, Katja, I am the ignorant one. (LOL, not a shock.) It's Google books and Internet Archiving which is supposed to be the Holy Grail of hardcore historical document researching. Not that I've gotten up the gumption to try it yet.You are exactly right, Google docs are a whole 'nother animal. I should have had children, who would be teenagers by now, and could figure out all this stuff for me…

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