Barbaric Practices in the Name of Medicine

“I was obliged to send for the Apothecary, who bled me very plentifully, but, tho’ it made me faint, it has reliev’d me wonderfully. Tonight I feel languid and stupid.” Those two sentences were written around 1800 by Lady Harriett Bessborough to her lover, Granville Leveson Gower. (A couple of days later, she came down with the chicken pox.)



As those of you familiar with the 18th and 19th century know, the aforementioned blood-letting was a common occurrence up until the 20th century. It was only one of the idiotic practices that were inflicted upon well-educated people by medical practitioners whose knowledge of  the human body–by today’s standards–was nonexistent.

In my reading of journals and letters from the era, I’m quite often shaking my head in disbelief over the barbaric treatments subjected upon patients by apothecaries, physicians, surgeons, oculists, and dentists. Here are some of these bizarre treatments I’ve underlined in my readings.

Take Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, sister of Lady Bessborough. When her eye swelled up, the surgeons were summoned. Among these oculists was Senior Surgeon-Extraordinary to King George III.  One of these so-called learned men almost strangled her to death in an effort to flush the blood up to her head. They also “broke” her eye, rendering her deformed for the rest of her life.

Bear in mind, there was no anesthesia at the time; so, most of these procedures were done on patients who were awake.

One wonders how people survived at all. Of course, we know life expectancy was quite low, and many early deaths must be laid at the door of these quacks. These medical practitioners had no medical training. They studied astronomy, thinking that the human body’s “humours” were affected by astronomy.

Another case of misguided doctoring occurred with the young son and heir of Lord Elgin (of Elgin Marbles fame). The sickly lad suffered from asthma, so it was recommended to have him drink mercury. His doting mother, thinking she was spurring her son to good health, kept dousing him with the toxic mercury.

Needless to say, the lad never inherited his father’s title for he died young after suffering a lifetime of very poor health. (His father’s title passed to a son from Lord Elgin’s second wife, after he divorced the lad’s Scottish heiress mother.)mistress

In her memoirs Mary Elizabeth Lucy, the mistress of Charlecote Park, tells of a tumble she took as a girl around 1810. It loosened her teeth. Her concerned mother took her from their home in Wales to consult a dentist in Liverpool who was known to be very clever. He immediately recommend removing every tooth in her mouth, setting them in gold, and putting them back. He said if he didn’t do that, all the teeth would drop out.

A panicky Mary Elizabeth entreated her mother not to allow the dentist to remove all her teeth. And at age 80, all her teeth were still intact.

Mary Elizabeth also tells of the three doctors who attended her daughter, who’d suffered an attack of tetanus. “They cut off all her beautiful hair, blistered her poor head and nearly her whole body and applied such hot bottles to her feet and legs that they made them perfectly raw.” Remarkably, she survived that treatment, but her lifespan was less than half of her mother’s.

Reading these accounts deglamorizes the life of the rich and famous of Georgian England and makes me ever so glad I was born when I was.–Cheryl Bolen, whose newest Brides of Bath book, Love in the Library, is now available. 

© Cheryl Bolen, 2014