In today’s current heated political climate do you often find yourself reconsidering your health care options? Does the recent reorganization of American healthcare and its shortcomings fill you with dread at how your own medical care is affected? Don’t fret! No matter what your current medical situation, it is objectively better than the medical care of two hundred years ago. Here are 5 reasons to take solace in our modern healthcare system no matter what your coverage.
The following examples come from early 19th century London.
What did I just step in?
Do you have clean clothes, is your food fresh, do you have access to clean water? If you answered yes to any of these questions then count yourself lucky. Two hundred years ago the majority of city dwellers would not have been able to boast of any of these luxuries. If you lived in London in the early 1800s, you would find the streets often flowing with garbage, urine, and human excrement. A hot shower and clean clothes are nice, but what does that have to do with healthcare? The very fact that we live in a relatively cleaner world than two hundred years ago means we are less likely to get sick. Disease spreads fastest in areas that lack proper sanitation and hygiene because bacteria is able to grow at exponential rates and spread quickly throughout the population. Even in 1817 this theory of connection between filth and disease was known, as the 1817 British Legislature pointed out “We believe it to be a fact beyond all dispute, that the disease frequently derives its origin from poverty, and its concomitants, hunger, cold, and rags, aggravated by filth and intemperance.”Even though this theory was widely accepted at the time, it proved impossible for large cities to improve hygiene for decades, with some cities like New York City not making large scale strides in sanitation until the 20th century.
2. OOO that smell! Can’t you smell that smell?
Do you enjoy afternoon walks, do you walk to work, do you walk for exercise? If so, be glad you are still alive! In the early 19th century such common exercise were often invitations to death. “Over exaggeration!” you say, “What a dumb article” you think, but wait, it’s true! The danger of 19th century streets came not from the streets themselves, but what lay below them. Before the age of sewers, cesspools were the subterranean garbage collectors of European and American cities. The precursor to modern septic tanks, cesspools were pits under city streets that were used to store the garbage and filth of surrounding neighborhoods. After all of the refuse had sat in the cesspool for days, liquefying the entire time, fumes started to build up. These gases were so dangerous that those unfortunate souls that fell into these pits died within hours. One London citizen in the early 1800s, Peter Mayhew said that “The smell, although the air was frosty, was for some little time, perhaps ten minutes, literally sickening; after that period the chief sensation experienced was a slight headache; the unpleasantness of the odor still continuing, though without any sickening effect.”Unfortunately for those living above cesspools, these fumes, or miasmas, entered the street and often asphyxiated passersby. Thanks to a century of healthcare reforms, cesspools have been eliminated and modern sewers have been installed, making the streets safe to walk.
3. Spoonful of sugar won’t help this medicine go down!
Do you take medicine on a daily basis, has a doctor prescribed you medicine, do you have a cabinet that’s sole purpose is to hold medicine? If so, then be rest assured that your medicine is safer, more accessible, and more effective than the medication taken by our 19th century ancestors. Medicine in the early 1800s took many forms, from medicinal herbs, the most innocuous, to injections of mercury, the most deadly. Perhaps one of the most common treatments for illnesses throughout the 19th century was bleeding. Contemporary medical professions subscribed to the theory of the four humors, the balancing of fluids in the body. If a patient was sick in the 1800s, then logically their humors were out of balance and they needed to be bled to equalize the fluids. Not only did bleeding patients severely weaken them, but it also led to infection. This prescription of laceration extended from the poorest households all the way up to royalty, as this 1817 Times article reported, discussing the treatment of the English princess Charlotte’s labor pains “opening a vein in her arm so that she enjoyed a comfortable sleep.”
4. Is it bad Doc?
Does your doctor keep you waiting, does your doctor have terrible handwriting, does your doctor have the gall to have cold hands? Even if you answered yes to all three, appreciate that you even have a doctor! In the 21st century, emergency medical care is only a phone call away, family doctors are very common, and specialists abound in large cities for more advanced illnesses. However, two hundred years ago not only was medical care more limited, but it was also segregated into three classes, apothecaries, barber-surgeons, and physicians. The poorest citizens used apothecaries, semi-pharmacists who often mixed roots and chemicals and sold them on street corners. For the middle class, the best they could afford were barber-surgeons, who, exactly like their name implies, cut hair and set bones all in the same day. Lastly, the rich were able to afford physicians, a medical profession that we would associate closest with doctors. Physicians had the most advanced medical training of their day, but because of flawed theories like the four humors, medicines like mercury and opium, and practices like bleeding, physicians were often just as ineffective as apothecaries and barber-surgeons.
5. Call 911, wait, nevermind
Do you think hospitals have a weird smell, do the fluorescent lights make you feel like you’re in a horror movie, do you associate hospitals with disease, death, and the creeps? Everyone knows that the answer to all three is YES, but be glad that we can make these complaints and not worse ones. For the poor in the 1800, they would rather dig their own grave than go to a hospital, and probably would have survived longer for doing so. Hospitals in the early 1800s were dens of disease; with germ theory still decades away, medical instruments were not cleaned, doctors did not wash their hands, and contagious patients were packed into large rooms with well patients. While the poor were often forced to go to hospitals as a last resort, the middle class and rich avoided them at all costs, knowing their danger. In 1816 the Edinburgh Register confirmed these fears saying “In the hospitals, the nurses, clerks…contracted the disease from the patients; and in private families of the first respectability, it has been introduced, and has proved comparatively more fatal than among the lower orders.” Today, hospitals are not only the center of medical research, but efficiently treat thousands of patients a day in an effective and safe manner.
We live in an age of constantly changing medical care that often seems inefficient and costly. However, if you ever feel overwhelmed by the inefficiencies of modern healthcare, just look back over this list and know that you have it better than our ancestors did.
“Acts of the British Legislature.” The Edinburgh Annual Register, Jan. 1817.
Allen, Michelle Elizabeth. Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London., 29.
Oatman-Stanford, Hunter. “A Filthy History: When New Yorkers Lived Knee-Deep in Trash.” Collectors Weekly, http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/when-new-yorkers-lived-knee-deep-in-trash/.
“The Princess Charlotte.” The Times, 7 June 1816, p. 3. http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy .lib.vt.edu/ttda/start.do?prodId =TTDA&userGroupName=viva_vpi.