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Medicine 1750 to 1800

In 1750 little progress had been made in medical advances - a situation that had been true for a number of centuries before. No-one knew what caused disease. There were those who believed that illness was caused by a miasma which was a poisonous cloud containing gems. This had been a prevalent belief during the Great Plague of 1665. There were those who still believed that an illness was a punishment from God - but their numbers were in decline.

The work done by doctors on the human body had improved our knowledge on anatomy but this had not really benefited society in terms of advances in treatments against common illnesses. Operations were still likely to lead to death as a result of infection - even if the patient had survived the operation. Lack of medical knowledge still meant that operations were crude and dangerous. Doctors wore dirty overcoats over their normal day coat in the operating theatre in anticipation of the blood and other fluids that might be spilt in quantity - they did not want to spoil their day-to-day clothes !! Surgical instruments were not disinfected afterwards as they did not know about germs. Hence operating knives etc. would be used form one patient to another and not cleaned. One set of operating tools found at the old GuyÂ’s Hospital had three sets of blood types on them - dried and stained into the wooden handles of the instruments. As late as 1864, Joseph Lister had a death rate of 46% after operations involving amputations.

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Hospitals, or what passed for them, were still crude by 1800. They were dirty and lacking in basic hygiene. All medical treatment cost money and there were plenty of charlatans around who took money off of gullible people with their quack treatments for illnesses.

Diseases associated with dirt and squalor were still common and feared in 1800. Typhoid, typhus and diphtheria were still major killers amongst those who lived in the slums. No-one knew what caused them and there was no link made between the social environment people lived in, lack of sanitation and disease.

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However, some important work had been done. In 1786, Otto Muller, a Dane, discovered several types of bacteria and Edward Jenner had discovered a vaccine against smallpox in 1796. However, Jenner did not know what caused smallpox and his work was held up to ridicule by the Anti-vaccine Society.

By 1800, the world had been bequeathed an important discovery - vaccination against a common illness. But doctors still believed that germs were the result of a disease rather than a cause of it. Knowledge was crude and death from diseases common. A great deal of progress was to be made in the nineteenth century, however.

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