This week, I’m very happy to share a panel presented at Steampunk Invasion in September 2014 by Virginia Rady.
My name is Virginia Rady ( but everyone calls me Sissy) and I have been a nurse practitioner for a year and a half, working in an internal medicine practice. Before that I worked my way up through the ranks at a hospital going from patient care tech, to nurse intern, to nurse, and then charge nurse and preceptor. Healthcare has always been a passion of mine and I think that knowing the history of my profession gives perspective and helps guide future practices. I started being interested in steampunk several years ago, partially out of a love for the fashion and architecture of the Victorian era, but it was the people I met along the way that kept me loving it. This discussion was originally drafted for a panel at The inaugural event of Steampunk Invasion. Hope you enjoy!
Victorian Medicine – Overview
The bulk of this discussion will pertain to Victorian era medicine – for the purposes of this dialogue it will include only discoveries and common practices from the years – 1837-1901, the reign of Queen Victoria for whom the era was named.
Aside from historical curiosity and education, the intent of this discussion is to also consider their practices and customs when integrating healthcare into steam-punk characters and backstories. You just can’t have a mad steampunk doctor without the random autopsies and the laudanum.
Germ theory, common medicines, and how people received and considered medical care will be covered
A home medical kit around 1830:
mortar and pestle, syringes, two lancets with case,
gourd medicine vial, suture needle and thread.
Germs and Infectious Disease.
Consider what we now know about Germ theory – germs – such as bacteria, viruses, and certain funguses cause disease when introduced to the body. What we now accept as fact was only just a blossoming into theory during the Victorian Era
Microscopic organisms were first discovered a century before the Victorian Era, however it wasn’t until Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur that these organisms were understood to be the cause of certain diseases and disorders.
Pasteur’s early research disproved the prior theory of spontaneous generation – the thought that living microbes could be created from inanimate materials. He formally named his work Germ Theory in the 1870s, and at the time his work was considered “really too fantastic”. Mr. Pasteur is also credited with creating the first vaccine: for anthrax which he tested on farm animals successfully, much to the surprise of all who were aware of the project. A school was formed in his honor, and the process of pasteurization is also named for him.
If Pasteur started the theory, then it is Koch who defined specific parts of it as he was able to determine the names of specific organisms responsible for certain diseases. He created many of the scientific staining techniques we still use today to prepare slides for viewing
His assistant was Julius Petri, for whom the petri dish is named. He designed it as a container to hold agar and bacteria samples for growth and study.
Of the diseases Koch studied the most significant was identifying Mycobacterium tuberculosis – which causes TB, at the time known as consumption. It is theorized that 1-4 Europeans and Americans died of this disease during the late 1800s. He later won the Nobel Prize for this achievement
Basic hygiene as a means of disease prevention wasn’t widely understood or accepted during the early part of the 19th century
As a result, doctors would perform an autopsy and then walk to the other wing of the hospital to deliver a baby without washing up first. This led to much higher maternal fatality rates in the hospital as compared to midwife attended home births. These statistics wouldn’t change until after hand-washing and other hygiene practices became standard.
The industrial revolution saw a rapid influx of people to urban areas that ended up living in crowded living quarters with poor plumbing and waste removal. This resulted in outbreaks of various diseases such as Cholera, the Flu, and TB which at the time was known as Consumption.
Interestingly before germ theory was fully understood and accepted as fact public officials and scientists used statistics to determine demographics on disease and death and found that the poor seemed to be affected the most.
Picture if you will a hot London summer in 1854 – Another outbreak of cholera is sweeping through the slums of London killing young and old. Within 2 weeks over 500 were dead. Scientist Dr. John Snow plotted the deaths on a map and he noticed that the area around a particular water pump seemed to have the highest death rate. To test his theory he convinced the local authorities to remove the handle from the pump forcing residents to get their water elsewhere – the death rate declined rapidly. Sadly, he would die before his correlation was fully understood.
It would be Robert Koch who identified the Cholera Bacillus in 1883 as the causative agent for Cholera – while working on an outbreak in India
We’ll pause here in talking about medicine in the 1800s.
Join us for Part 2 where Virginia talks about drugs, people, and hospitals.
Kevin Steil is the creator of the steampunk news and information resource website, Airship Ambassador, the annual month-long global blogathon, Steampunk Hands Around the World, and is the curator of the online Steampunk Museum. He has been a guest and speaker at a number of conventions, contributed to several books, and has consulted for national media programs and events. He can also officiate your wedding!