Health, Medicine, and Society in Victorian England

Health, Medicine, and Society in Victorian England

Health, Medicine, and Society in Victorian England

Health, Medicine, and Society in Victorian England

Synopsis

In 1800, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, syphilis, and smallpox were the primary causes of illness and death, but no one knew what caused them-they were generally believed to be inherited or to be the result of bad air. By 1905, the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, cholera, and syphilis had been identified, and an effective method of preventing smallpox, had dramatically cut the number of cases. Science had begun to transform medicine.

Excerpt

“History may seem to be about the past, but it is really about the present.” Jacalyn Duffin, an MD and a historian of medicine, begins a chapter in her book, History of Medicine: A Scandalously Short Introduction, with this short and perhaps scandalous truth about history. The questions we ask, the subjects we choose to research, and the way we put together our findings about the past, all proceed from our position in the present. Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, the history of medicine was largely written by medical men concerned with the intellectual history of medicine and with the lives and work of medicine’s great men. It was a story of progress, of the defeat of disease, of the invention of marvelous new surgical techniques, of continual improvement in the health and longevity of national populations. Smallpox had been eradicated from the globe in 1977, public health measures were effective in banishing epidemics of cholera and similar diseases primarily spread through unsanitary practices, vaccinations had been developed to prevent most of the old childhood killers such as diphtheria and measles, and antibiotics were able to cure most diseases, even that guilt-ridden terror, syphilis. The future of medicine seemed rosy, and the past tended to be viewed as a steady progress toward that future via a successful and self-congratulatory present.

Then in 1981 a new, and terrifying, disease appeared. Called AIDS for “acquired immune deficiency syndrome,” it was invariably fatal and its victims died after suffering a number of horrific symptoms. It was at first blamed on homosexual men, but was later found to be capable of infecting both sexes and people of any sexual orientation. Since it weakens the immune system, people with AIDS were found to be much more vulnerable . . .

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