Regency Medicine--The Good, the Bad, and the Horrific

September 13, 2015


When I was writing DUKES ARE FOREVER, the heroine, Kate Benton, helps the local villagers by providing medical assistance. She would love to be a real doctor--but no such thing for a woman, not in those days, except for being a mid-wife or perhaps a nurse for female patients only. Women could not go to medical school. So Kate must teach herself and conduct her own experiements for cures using the herbs and plants she grows in her garden.


As you read through DUKES ARE FOREVER, you'll notice that medicine and medical care does come to the forefront throughout the novel. A few points to note--


Medicines -- Kate uses herbs and plants for medicines, which was exactly how it would have been in Regency times. A person would go to his/her local apothocary and purchase various herbal combinations which might (but mostly not) help with their conditions. Having no local apothocary, Kate must make her own. When Edward is shot, laudenum is used for pain. Very potent, very addictive, used frequently during this time.


Infections -- No such thing as germ theory yet; although physicians were beginning to understand the process of innoculation to fend off communicative diseases, like smallpox, they didn't understand how to combat infections very well. In fact, a lot of what they did--such as not changing bandages, not thoroughly sterilizing equipment, etc.--made it worse. And with no antibiotics, even a small cut could result in death. The advancements which were being made were largely coincidental and made by rural physicans. For example, no one knew why midwives should wash their hands before the birth; they just knew from experience that midwives in the country who washed their hands first had more babies survive than those who didn't. The same with changing bandages. Rural doctors who changed bandages more frequently (or even at all) than their urban counterparts discovered less infections. Which brings us to...


Bullet wounds -- In DUKES ARE FOREVER, (spoiler!) Edward is shot in a duel, and when Kate rushes to his side to help, she pleads with the physician to leave the stitches in longer than practice allowed. At the time, it was common for sutures to be removed after only 3 days--and even that had been longer than usual--because that was what the field doctors were doing during the Napoleonic Wars. Thank goodness that the French doctors during this time started to see that leaving the stitches in longer would lead to better mending of the flesh and result in less post-surgery incidents of tearing the wound back open. (Side note: In DUKES ARE FOREVER, Kate uses Napoleon's private surgeon as an example of why to leave the sutures in longer, only to be scoffed at for believing a surgeon and a French one at that.) Which brings us to...


Physicians Vs. Surgeons -- A clear distinction set these two types of doctors apart. A surgeon did the messy work of the surgery and stopping the bleeding, putting in stitches, etc. while a physician dealt with matters of "physic." (And neither had anything to do with women birthing babies.) If you had a duel, you'd arrange for a surgeon to be present in case you lost. Once the surgeon patched you up, you'd appeal to the physician for the medicine to heal the wounds and pain medication to keep you happily loopy.


Anesthesia – Didn’t exist. They held surgeries anyway, even cutting into the body cavity and cutting off body parts.


Dentistry – You don’t want to know.


In general, life was painful, physcially messy, and short. Average life expectancy at this time was less than 40 years old (which didn’t occur, by the way, until around 1900), approximately 1 out of 10 women died in childbirth, and a scratch on the arm could kill you. So when Kate Bennett comments that she wouldn’t trust the local doctor with a dead cat, she wasn’t exaggerating.

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