7th April is World Health Day, so it seemed right to do a blog looking at medicine during the 18th Century.
Unsurprisingly medicine was slightly simpler in the 18th Century and yet many of the base practices are still done today. One of the big differences though was the lack of anaesthetic, which wasn’t developed until the 19th Century. In the 18th Century you would have been given alcohol or, if you could pay for it, sometimes opium. One invention that did help in 1746 though was the screw tourniquet. This was said to be one of the biggest advances in medical science at the time and was designed to stop the flow of blood ready for amputation. Before this invention getting enough pressure to stop the patient bleeding out was a significant problem and led to many unnecessary deaths.
Amputation, rather unsurprisingly, required a saw for the bone but to cut through the skin and muscle first you would use a curved amputation knife. The curved nature of the blade would allow all the skin and muscle to be cut through in one clean action. These curved knives were used until the 1800’s when new techniques made the straight knife more useful. Following amputation you would then pull out the viens and arteries to be tied off. For this you used a tenaculum. Tying off the arteries was common practice since roughly the 17th Century and is still done today, though not with catgut for string.
Amputation is a little extreme for most illnesses but a common technique used for a variety of ailments was bloodletting. If a doctor was unsure what was wrong it was common for them to let some blood. By doing so the thought was that they would get rid of the bad blood and solve the problem. To do this they used a fleam or bleeding knife. It is said it was not unheard of for doctors to bleed up to a quart of blood over a 24 hour period. The fleam was actually used on farms until about the 1950s for the same reason; bleed animals to improve their general health.
Another tool used in the 18th Century which might look familiar was cupping glasses. These were either heated around the rim or burning lint was inserted to create a vacuum and then they would be placed on the skin to raise a blister. In the 1700’s they were used to relieve bile problems and were widely used in cases of insanity; even King George III was treated with cupping glasses. Nowadays cupping is a popular alternative therapy and is believed to help the flow of blood and relax the body and mind.
We hope this has given you a little insight into 18th Century medicine. As always please, like, share, comment, tweet and be thankful we have anaesthetic.
All the best, K & D