Friday, January 15, 2010

Fascinating Historical Medicine

by Jill Nutter

PhotobucketI love researching my Regency era novels. For those of you who haven't ventured into this kind of research yet be warned: it's addictive. Of course you have to love history or it might not have the same effect on you.:) I'm a counselor by day and have worked in the mental health field for years so it shouldn't surprise anyone that I'm fascinated by books like: Undertaker of the Mind: John Monro and Mad-Doctoring in Eighteenth-Century England (Medicine and Society) by Jonathan Andrews and Andrew Scull and Customers and Patrons of the Mad-Trade: The Management of Lunacy in Eighteenth-Century London, With the Complete Text of John Monro's 1766 Case Book by Jonathan Andrews and Andrew Scull.

PhotobucketI always felt sorry for King George III. Can you imagine losing your mind and your job, let alone the ability to reign as king because of a medical disease that no one even knew existed?

PhotobucketRoy Porter wrote my kind of books: Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine, The Cambridge History of Medicine, Quacks: Fakers & Charlatans in Medicine (Revealing History),Patients and Practitioners: Lay Perceptions of Medicine in Pre-industrial Society (Cambridge Studies in the History of Medicine), Medical Fringe & Medical Orthodoxy, 1750-1850 (Wellcome Institute Series in the History of Medicine). If you've never heard of him just go to and look up the volumes of books this guy wrote. I think he wrote something like 80 before he died at age 55 not long ago. Porter is an incredible resource.

PhotobucketWhile researching information about the origins of the stethoscope I discovered via Porter's book and the internet that the stethoscope was invented in 1816 by Rene Laennec.

Dr. Laennec had been trying to listen to the heart of an obese woman and because it was necessary for him to put his ear to her bare chest he didn't want to be inappropriate, so he rolled up a newspaper and listened to her heart that way and voila it worked well. He could hear the sounds of the heart more clearly and the history of medicine took a new direction: the development of the stethoscope.


PhotobucketI've read that it was Charles Thomas Haden who brought the stethoscope to England. He became a friend of Jane Austen when he attended her father.

Internet resource:

The movie Miss Austen Regrets depicts a jealous Jane Austen silently fuming over the attentions paid by a young doctor to her 22-year-old niece, Fanny Knight. The doctor, Charles Thomas Haden, is portrayed by Jack Huston, with Olivia Williams as Jane and Imogen Poots as Fanny.

There's so much more I wanted to share with you, but it will have to wait for another post. I hope you've enjoyed this post today and I look forward to sharing more in the future on the subject of fascinating historical medicine.

Question: Want to share some research you've discovered related to medicine? Or tell us what historical medicine question you've always wondered about?


  1. Oh Jill! too cool. You've just given me some more resources. And of course I've seen (I own) Miss Jane Regrets but had no idea that Mr. Haden was anyone of renown other than a dr who'd caught Jane's eye later in life.

    Looks like I have some books to put on order at the library.

    Funny thing about writers - our internet searches and library book lists can be worrisome.
    I can't be the only one searching out undetectable poisons and the effects of each stage of syphilis.

  2. Good question. Probably the easiest thing to find research about in my chosen era of 1800's is the plague. I hope to do a book about an herbalist during the plague.

    So here's my "missing fact." The name "quack" came from the fact that during the plague some doctors and surgeons would wear a long beak type mask to protect themselves from the illness.

  3. I've been most curious about medicine in the Smoky Mountains (Southern Appalachia) in the 19th century.

    What did they have? Herds. Folk Medicine. Indian Cures. Spiderwebs for wounds. And of course...liquor (moonshine!)

  4. Y'all blow me away with the depth of your research. Hmmm. I will be learning all I wanted to know--and more--about PKD (polycystic kidney disease) for work in progress.

    The book will be dedicated to my brave friend, Shereen, who had a kidney transplant and is a survivior of the disease that took her M.D. father.

    Oh, there's so much that I need to KNOW!!!!

  5. I love historical research. But I have to admit to all of you Regency loving girls, that I write books set in the US in the late 1800s. So I have tons of books on the old west, ladies of the evening, railroads, cowboys, and of course books that are regional histories of my area. A fascinating series of books that might interest people that I've used are called The Foxfire Book Series edited by Eliot Wigginton and His Students. I don't know how many there are in the series, but they're a great resource.

    You can find out things like how to build a log cabing. Faith healing. Herb healing. Wives tales. Oh, and this one's for Schmologna: moonshing. It's a geat series.

  6. Good Morning Everyone!
    I have a crazy day at work and have to take my mom to the doctor and my daughter Meg to church at 5:00 to join the others in a retreat to Michigan. But I will be here as much as possible. This is a subject dear to my heart.

    I'm starting to wonder if we can develop some sort of research library. Deb, poisons and syphilis are of interest to me as well because of the mental health implications and our love of asylums.:)And I have not seen Miss Jane Regrets. Was it good?

    Dina, I never knew that's where the name quack came from. Fascinating! I've done some research on herbs and the history of homeopathy for a previous book adn that's incredibly interesting as well. Sounds like you and Dina and I have some research in common.

    Shmologna said...
    I've been most curious about medicine in the Smoky Mountains (Southern Appalachia) in the 19th century.

    Hi there Shmologna,
    I dont' have as much experience in this area but I do know that Sharon McCrumb is a great Appalachian writer who you might gain some knowledege from. Visit her website you will be pleasantly surprised. And I know moonshine is in there somewhere! :) AND for all of you her newest book that I should have referred Cheryl Wyatt to is: Faster Pastor. :) And she has books set in Enland like McPhearson's Lament, Contemporary in Scotland if you want to laugh yourself silly called, Highland Laddie Gone. Can you tell I'm a fan? Oh I would be remiss if I didn't turn you on to the PMS Outlaws! Ya gotta read it. Deb get this one! Anyway you should all go to Sharon's website. She rocks big time.

    Did you know that my husband and I both worked in dialysis units for years and years. Ask us what you want to know.:)

    I'll check in with ya all later. Ask away.

  7. Every year medical students at our university host an international conferene on the history of medicine. I love the interviews on the local radio. You never know, academic journals might be a good source for research.

    Of course everything I hear disappears as as the traffic or weather or announced, but then I don't write historicals.

    Wonderful subject though. I'd love to see your bookshelf someday.

  8. Excellent post, Jill. It reminds me of one with lots of pics which Harlequin Historical author Kate Bridges did over on Petticoats and Pistols about doctor's physical resources used in the 19th century. I believe the research was for one of her books about a doctor during the Yukon Klondike but at the moment I can't think of the title.

    But this fascination with madness is riveting to say the least. I've got you pegged on my list of resources. :)

  9. Hey Suzie,
    The Foxfire Book Series sounds pretty fascinating too. None of us ever know when we may need somthing to supplement one of our books or time period it may be set in so I don't see us having to talk specifically about Regency, that's just my era for the moment. It's interesting to me to compare what was going on in the US during the Regency years and that just becomes mind boggling to me.

  10. I've used quite a bit of medicine in two of my novels. I found some great resources. One is set in 1773, and I used a lot of the herbal remedies and folk cures. Here is a link to William Buchan's text Domestic Medicine which was very popular at the time and well known to Doctors, surgeons and apothecaries.

    Have I mentioned lately that I love research?

  11. Okay, so far I've requested one of Jill's reference books from the library and I've bookmarked Lisa's 18th medical website too.

    Good stuff.
    Happy Researching, all. Historical or not, I hope you enjoy it 'cos it's part of the process.

  12. Oh wow, I don't know where to start! Thanks everybody for your book and website recommendations. I love it! Suzie, I've been working on an 1880s piece so I will definitely check out that series.

    I'm also a Regency gal, Jill, and I can't wait for your books to get published! Your research sounds fascinating. (and for all of my Jane A. love, I've never seen that movie. Well, I guess I'll have to remedy that ASAP.)

    The appalachian stuff sounds great, too. It reminded me of reading "Christy" (such a wonderful book) and the superstitions of the characters, using axes to "cut the pain," etc. And then there's the moonshine, LOL.

    Thanks for the post! Loved it, Jill!

  13. Just got home and realized I said 1800's instead of 1300's. Ooops.

  14. Hi Gang,
    I see you've been busy commenting while I was away.:)
    I would love to be at that conference on the history of medicine. I didn't even know anyone did anything like that. I'm inspired to look around here in Cincy now. Afterall, I work in a hospital. I bet you have more than one historical novel in you.:)

    Hi Anita,
    I've never visited Petticoats and Pistols. At least I don't think I did. I'll have to check the site out. And I am obsessed with madness as you know. That's probably why a married a guy named Nutter. Alas.

  15. Lisa,
    From one research nut to another. You know what I'm not sure of at all? and you or others may know the answer. Was medicine more progressive in England during the time of the american revolution or in America? I'm guessing England, but not sure.
    And don't you just love the word: Apothecary? I don't know why but I love it.
    I'll definetly check out the website.

    Hey Susanne,
    Glad you're having fun. :) You'll have lots to explore and I've got to see that movie too. I just found it on that website.

  16. Hi Jill -

    Super post! I never knew how the stethescope was invented. We're so accustomed to seeing them that we don't consider their origins.

    I don't have any medical questions at this point.

    Susan :)

  17. Hmm, nothing about medicine although your post got me thinking about all those Phillipa Gregory novels I've devoured. it's thanks to her her I'm up on my Tudor history!

  18. Hey Susan,
    So glad you stopped by. It's interesting how just one thing, like the stethoscope, can effect so much, God does indeed think big.

  19. T. Anne said...
    Hmm, nothing about medicine although your post got me thinking about all those Phillipa Gregory novels I've devoured.

    Hi T.Anne,
    You will have to be our Tudor history resource person. I am a fan of Jonathan Rhys Meyers. :) But I've only seen him in one of the Tudor shows.

    Does Phillipa Gregory go into a lot of medical detail?

    Thanks so much for stopping by. Come back often.

  20. Jilly, this has been a fun conversation today. Everyone has so many great resources. I can't wait to check them all out, especially since the hero in my historical is a doctor.

    Today, at work, I hit pay dirt. We have a new nurse in our office, and she had this book sitting on our desk about the history of the doctors and hospital on our island. Now...I just so happen to have set my book in the small town where the hospital is. It goes clear back to early 1800s.

    Imagine my delight when she said I could borrow it anytime. Score!

  21. Hi Suzie!
    I'm glad you had fun today, I did too!Score is right! Now that's interesting. Do you want to share the name of the book or keep it under wraps awhile?:) I don't believe in coincidences so it must have been a God intervention. :) Enjoy!

  22. Jilly, I would happily share the name of the book. Unfortunately, I didn't bring it home with me because she needs it Monday for a presentation. And silly me, I don't remember the title. I'll let you know next week. I do know you have to order it from the Island County Historical Society.

  23. Thanks Suzie. I was just curious. Medicine just fascinates me, can you tell? :) Yet I never had a desire to be a doctor or a nurse, and my mother is a retired nurse. Go figure. I think I'll go to bed now. Thanks for a fun day everyone.

  24. This is very interesting! I just learned about the use of Blue Mass, a cure all. I have funning learning about all these historical tidbits. I love to research for my own writing.


  25. Hi Carla,
    Thanks for the info. on Blue Mass. I've never heard of it. I'll have to come visit your blogspot. Have a great day and stop back to visit.

  26. I thought about this all day yesterday! Medical history is so interesting. Especially how the "experts" say one thing, and then say something entirely different a decade later. Thank God we have the Great Physician to go to who knows all things!

  27. Jilly, during the revolutionary war period, medicine was definitely more progressive on the continent than either England or America. Probably more so in England than in America as well. Simply because of the denser population, the chance that a doctor or a surgeon was nearby rather than relying almost solely on home remedies would make it more probable.

    And I love the word Apothecary too, it is very evocative to me, conjuring up images of shops with a million tiny drawers and mysterious jars, and a mortar and pestle with exotic herbs in it.

  28. Jill, coming very late to this, and American medicine with Dr. Benjamin Rush, was extremely progressive, maybe more so than in england. Never looked that far back much, but I know America was pretty progressive by then. think rush had some innovative things about mental illness, too.

    Love Porter's book Mind-forged Manicles. this is a mental illness history. The man was amazing. have some more of his books, too. Want more. LOL.

    finally, midwifery is my forte in historical research. They ahd a code and were cleaner than doctors. Fewere women died in chioldbirth or of that fever I won't event ry to spell, childbed fever, with a midwife in attendance than with a doctor in attendance. then the forceps came along. Midwives couldn't use them, so docs got a foothold.

    Google Books is a fabulous place to look for old medical texts. Found out when caesarian sections were being performed. byt the 1840s not considered unusual. risky, but not unusual. Heroine needs to perform one in my lady doctor book coming out in August. Old issues of the Lancet--British medical journal--and other medical journals. massachusetts, I believe. JAMA. And midwifery books, too. Fabulous to read original sources with their thoughts and thinking of the time, not our speculation.

  29. Read Fever 1736 by Laurie Halse Anderson (I think - about the yellow fever outbreak) last year with the 5th graders and it reminded me of something I've always wondered about...Did leeching really work?

  30. I just happened to come back to this post and saw your post Laurie and Mary's. I don't know if you'll ever see this, but Niki and Lisa I may have missed your posts as well, here. I just love this kind of stuff as you can tell.

    Laurie, I only recently discovered Google Books. Don't know how I've missed that treasure trove and I think the child bed fever word is
    puerperal fever. Tess Gerritsen wrote a book I really enjoyed called, The Bone Garden. You might want to check it out sometime for the medical stuff. It's set in present time and 1830's Boston.

  31. Mary,
    I read Fever. Loved it! I keep waiting for Halse to write another YA historical. I may have to do that myself. :)


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