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A guest post by LH Member Ross MacFarlane. First published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from June 2014.

As incidents of Victorian London go, “The Great Stink” of June 1858 must be one of the most familiar: the merest mention of the words brings to mind cartoons of filthy water (such as the one shown, below) and, most famous of all, the disruption of debates in the Houses of Commons due to the stench wafting in from the river.

But away from Westminster, what was the experience like for other Londoners? Was the Great Stink as bad downriver as it was in Parliament? Here’s a description of Rotherhithe from June 1858, sweltering in the summer heat:

Rotherhithe, in common with all other Metropolitan riverside parishes, has suffered considerable inconvenience during the just elapsed month from the stenches arising from the filthy state of the Thames water. Perhaps in the annals of mankind such a thing was never before known, as that the whole stream of a large river for a distance of seven or eight miles should be in a state of putrid fermentation. The cause of the putrescency, and of the blackish-green colour of the water, is admitted by all to be the hot weather acting upon the ninety millions of gallons of sewage which discharge themselves daily into the Thames. Now, by sewage, must be understood, not merely house and land drainage, but also drainage from bone-boilers, soap-boilers, chemical works, breweries, and above all from gas factories, the last, the most filthy of all, and the most likely to cause corruption of the water. Should any person doubt this assertion, let him compare the foul black and stinking liquid of a sewer which passes by a gas work, with that of a sewer which receives only house and land drainage…

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If you were any doubt about the effect of such proximity to the Thames during this period, this writer leaves you with little doubt how trying life was:
“It is quite impossible to calculate the consequences of such a moving mass of decomposition as the river at present offers to our senses…”

The author of this graphic account was not a noted author nor a campaigning journalist but Dr William Murdoch, then Medical Officer of Health for Rotherhithe, and his account of the summer stench of 1858 comes from his Report on the health of the area he submitted to the Parish of Rotherhithe for that year. It’s also one of the many accounts of life in London revealed through the Wellcome Library’s digitisation project, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports, 1848-1972.

Launched in late 2013, London’s Pulse brings together more than 5500 annual reports from Medical Officers of Health (MoHs) covering the City of London, 32 present-day London boroughs, their predecessors, as well reports from the London County Council and the Port of London.

The reports have been photographed cover-to-cover and turned into text using Optical Character Recognition. Along with the full text, around 275 000 tables have been extracted from the reports as individual files (downloadable as text, HTML, XML and CSV). All this data – as well as images of each page of every report – can be downloaded, freely, from London’s Pulse.

The website also includes contextualising essays from Dr Becky Taylor of Birkbeck and a detailed timeline, placing the reports amongst the forest of legislation which altered the responsibilities of MoHs.

Briefly summarised by Dr Andrea Tanner, MoHs duties – as required by law – “were to inspect and report from time to time on the sanitary condition of their district, to enquire into the existence of disease and into increases in the death rate, to explain the likely causes of disease in their area and to recommend measures to counteract ill-health”.

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As such, analysing MoH reports allows us firstly to trace responses to the major infectious diseases of the 19th century, showing how disease outbreaks could quickly spread but yet, over time, how rates of morality gradually fell across the capital and such maladies as typhoid, smallpox and diphtheria gradually retreated from our streets.

At the same time, the responsibilities of MoHs increased: from their introduction following legislation in the 1840s and 1850s, the scope of their attention widened: from homes, to factories, to ports, to schools; to bakehouses, to dairies and to slaughterhouses – all would come under the gaze of the MoH and their growing staff of sanitation officials, school nurses and environmental officials. The amount of access obtained by the MoH and their staff to these differing kinds of properties illustrates why these reports tell us so much about the lives (and deaths) of previous generations of Londoners.

As such, the reports show just how much information can nominally come under the heading of “medical”: these reports have been used in the past for studies on such wildly differing topics as food and food safety; maternity and child welfare; health promotion; housing; pollution; manufacturing; shops and offices; sanitation; social care; civil liberties; demography; engineering and meteorological conditions. With the greater amount of access provided by London’s Pulse, we hope even more research topics may be added to this list – to take two examples, the London Sound Survey website has started to use the website to uncover what these reports can tell us about London’s attitude towards noise and the Municipal Dreams blog has incorporated data from London’s Pulse into its detailed accounts of the activities of municipal reformers.

As strong as these reports are as evidence, there are of course just one source on London’s health from the 19th century onwards. Given the local level these reports operate on, much supporting material for them can be found at London’s local studies libraries and archives and to promote London’s Pulse and flag up such material, the Wellcome Library held events earlier this year in association with local libraries and archives in Tower Hamlets, Kensington and Chelsea, Southwark and Camden.

Preparing for these events only emphasised the breadth of London life observed by the MoHs. To take the context of London’s response to the First World War, through London’s Pulse you can see illustrations of how manufacture was affected, the effects of the housing shortage, attacks by Zeppelins and even discussion over whether gunfire on the Western Front was behind the increase in rainfall in south East England in 1915 and 1916…

But at the heart of the reports on London’s Pulse are the responses by MoHs and their staff to the health of their local populations. What comes through most of all from the reports is the MoHs attention to detail: their diligent reporting and statistical accounting of the well-being of their local area. Whether it’s in their intense detection into the exact site of a disease outbreak or even in risking injury when illegal traders respond angrily to their investigation of adulterated foodstuffs; MoHs and their staff respond to the challenges they face with a stoic sense of duty. With London’s Pulse we can look at London life through their eyes and see the problems these relatively unsung figures responded to and how they helped alter our city for the better.


London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports, 1848-1972 


Ross MacFarlane
Ross MacFarlane is Research Development Lead at Wellcome Collection, where he is heavily involved in promoting the Wellcome’s library collections. He has researched, lectured and written on such topics as the history of early recorded sound, freak shows and notions of urban folklore in Edwardian London. He has led guided walks around London on the occult past of Bloomsbury and on the intersection of medicine, science and trade in Greenwich and Deptford. As an archivist, he has worked at a number of London institutions including King’s College, Tate Britain, the Royal Society and the Reform Club. Whilst doing so he has handled a mermaid, discovered a lost alchemy manuscript written by Isaac Newton and found out almost too much about Henry Wellcome.

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This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of December 2013.
by Caroline Rance.

Charlotte Street, following the line of the modern A400 leading off Bedford Square (and distinct from the Charlotte Street west of Tottenham Court Road) became home in around 1862 to an elusive and morally dubious fellow named Dr Charles Daniel Hammond.

Detail from Smith's Map of London 1860

Quack Central. Bloomsbury from Smith’s Map of London, 1860.

Perhaps ironically for someone with a website and book called The Quack Doctor, I try to avoid branding nineteenth-century medicine vendors ‘quacks’. The demarcation between orthodox physicians and the practitioners on the fringes of their profession was blurred. Treatments from either were often ineffective or harmful. Medical qualifications came with no guarantee of trustworthiness, and a lack of certificates was no guarantee of incompetence.

There are cases, however, where I have fewer qualms about referring to ‘quackery’, and that’s when evidence suggests a practitioner was deliberately out to extort money. Hammond and his associates fall firmly into this category.

They were involved in a lucrative field of bogus medicine centred on historically specific anxieties about masculinity. The fictive disease of ‘spermatorrhoea’ – an involuntary leakage of semen thought to render its sufferer physically and morally weakened – is less well-known than the comparable phenomenon of female hysteria. Yet it ‘existed’ as a medical expression of the anti-masturbation rhetoric that remained under the influence of the eighteenth-century Onania and the work of Samuel-Auguste Tissot. Widely accepted by doctors, the condition was subject to unpleasant treatments that enabled quacks to denounce the medical profession and promote their own comparatively easy and discreet cures.

Perhaps it would be wise not to go into too much detail about this background in case it gets London Historians’ fine newsletter condemned to the spam bins, so I’ll focus instead on some of the practical methods Hammond and those like him used to attract and retain patients.

Francis Burdett Courtenay, a surgeon who used the pseudonym ‘Detector’ to expose the activities of quacks in a series of letters to the Medical Circular, cited the case of an anxious young man who answered Hammond’s advertisement for an ‘Electric, Curative and Phosphoric Vitaliser.’ The reply asked for two guineas for a ‘self-curative’ belt – the man sent the money, but received only some medicine and lotion in return. Annoyed that he didn’t get what he paid for, he wrote back to complain.

Hammond’s reply was calculated to induce terror. He had looked further into the case (even though he had never actually seen the man) and decided ‘a slight disease of the kidneys’, was causing semen to drain away.

‘This vital waste is not only capable of causing all the symptoms you detail, but such is the sympathy existing between the generative functions and the brain, that should this drain of the most vital of all your secretions be not immediately arrested, your whole system must suffer very serious derangement, whilst the organs of generation themselves will become vitiated and relapse into a state of utter impotency.’

Added to this was the horrifying prospect of ‘withering and wasting’. In case the lad wasn’t already anxious enough, Hammond predicted that his case would end in insanity. But, thank goodness, he had sought help just in time!

The patient ended up sending another two guineas, and while it would be easy to call him gullible for throwing good money after bad, there’s nothing funny about being inexperienced and scared that there’s something seriously wrong with you.

The belt – when it eventually turned up – was an ordinary suspensory bandage, holding up a circle of metal pieces through which the patient had to place the part concerned. This was supposed to provide ‘a continuous current of electricity, which is taken up by the whole system, infusing new life and “manly vigour” into the debilitated or relaxed frame.’ Unsurprisingly (and perhaps fortunately) it did not work. Hammond’s patent, filed in 1864, shows that it had no way of generating a current.

Dr Hammond's Curative Vitaliser

Eye-watering. Patent diagram of Dr Hammond’s Curative Vitaliser.

But how did Hammond reach prospective patients like this young man?

In the newspaper advertising columns of the 1860s, it is common to find a plethora of competing practitioners all targeting such ‘nervous’ male readers. They promote their own books and electric belt devices, using eye-catching straplines such as ‘Electricity is Life’ and ‘Electricity at Home.’ The reader worried about his health could take his pick from Dr Hammond at 11 Charlotte Street; H. James, (Medical Electrician) at Percy House; Dr Watson at No. 1, South Crescent, Bedford Square; W. Halle Esq. at 1 South Crescent, Store Street, and W. H. Hill Esq. at Berkeley House.

What choice! Yet his letter would arrive at one of only two actual buildings – the changing identities of the practitioners were as fluid as the patients’ own spermatorrhoeic bodily state.

These advertisements were not aimed at the Londoner who could walk to Store Street or Charlotte Street and readily discover the duplicity. Instead, they were placed in newspapers across the country in the hope of attracting mail order custom. The dissatisfied punter of one practitioner could try his luck with another, unaware that his money was going into the same pocket.

Dr Hammond advert

A typical ad, this one from The Edinburgh Courant in 1869.

While Hammond and ‘Henry James’ operated from one address in Charlotte Street, Dr Charles Watson and William Hill Esq. were based just down the road in South Crescent. They advertised information on the:

‘SELF-CURE OF NERVOUS AND PHYSICAL DEBILITY. Wasting of the Vital Fluids, and withering of the Nervous Tissues, Lassitude, Loss of Energy and Appetite, Groundless Fears, and other Disorders of the Sexual System; presented to Sufferers, in order to lay bare the hidden causes of those maladies which afflict Humanity, and afford such advice as will effect a cure in the majority of cases, without dangerous Medicines and expensive consultations, which may be dispensed with.’

Courtenay viewed the Watson-Hill partnership as distinct from the Hammond-James one, but the striking similarities between them make it possible that the two concerns were linked. They used almost identical false qualifications, both subscribed to voluntary hospitals in order to imply that they had an official connection with them, used similar language in their advertising and both held genuine patents for galvanic devices. The name ‘Watson’ is occasionally cited by Hammond’s critics as one of the latter’s aliases, suggesting that they were considered part of the same group even if the technicalities of who was who are rather obscure.

By advertising in the provincial press under multiple names and addresses, the mid-nineteenth-century quack could take advantage of both geographical and personal distance from his patients, advising them by standard letter that he had ‘given their case mature consideration’ and concluded that they were in danger of impotence. As well as reducing the chance of repercussions if patients were dissatisfied, this system also enabled the compilation of mailing lists of likely prospects, who could be sent pamphlets from more than one alias in the hope that they would respond.

The system of distance, however, could also appear advantageous to the patient, who need not take time away from his business or domestic roles, and was not even obliged to give his real name. It is easy to see that this had some appeal compared with the prospect of consulting the family doctor and admitting one’s embarrassing concerns face to face. The agreement of anonymity in remote diagnosis served the immediate purposes of both practitioner and patient, enabling the perpetuation of practices that ultimately left the latter out of pocket.


London Historians member Caroline Rance is the author of several books on the subject of the history of medicine, including The Quack Doctor: Historical Remedies for All Your Ills (2013) and The History of Medicine in 100 Facts (2015). 

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Museum of London archaeologists spent much of 2006 recovering human and animal remains discovered at the Royal London Hospital from 262 burials. All were processed and – because of markings and cuts – discovered to be the objects of study by 18th Century anatomists. They form the basis and inspiration for this new exhibition at the museum: Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men.

The London Hospital 1760 C The Royal London Hospital Archives

The London Hospital 1760 © The Royal London Hospital Archives

In the early 1830s the government wished to solve a problem which had been a long time festering: the illegal trade in cadavers. Demand by hospitals was huge and legal supply (a restricted number of executed criminals) was tiny. The result of this was surgeons purchasing bodies from grave-robbers and in some cases, murderers. So in 1832 it passed the Anatomy Act which allowed unclaimed corpses – typically from workhouses – to be passed to the anatomists. This is the pivotal event around which the exhibition is based.

The consequences were many, but mainly the disappearance of the resurrection men and the professionalisation of surgery and the rise of teaching hospitals replacing private anatomy schools from the previous century. Less than 10 years before the Act saw the launch of The Lancet, which insisted on peer-reviewed research and campaigned against ingrained bad practice – such as nepotism – in the profession. And in the decade following we see the introduction of basic anaesthesia with the use of ether. So surgery was transformed on many fronts in these decades that are the focus of the exhibition. Hence the show has many strands and layers which are masterfully managed.

Central to the whole exhibition – but by no means dominating – are skeletons and wax models. These are what trainee surgeons used to learn their trade. To minimise atrophy, corpses were used mainly in the cooler months. In the height of summer, learning aids tended to be restricted to  the use of wax anatomy models. These are extraordinary sophisticated, detailed and yes, beautiful in their own way. The master of  this particular craft was Joseph Towne.

Joseph Towne wax model, created for 1851 Great Exhibition C Gordon Museum, King's College London 1

Joseph Towne wax model, created for 1851 Great Exhibition © Gordon Museum, King’s College London

Self portrait of Joseph Towne (1808-79) c1825  C Gordon Museum, King's C...

Self portrait of Joseph Towne (1808-79) c1825 © Gordon Museum, King’s College London.

The public were terrified of resurrection men and even more of “London Burkers” – after Burke and Hare – men who actually murdered to supply fresh bodies to the surgeons. The most notorious case was the so-called Italian Boy. The story is here represented by post-execution portraits of the murderers. We have an example from St Bride’s crypt (worth a visit) of a metal coffin, the resort of paranoid wealthy who wished to prevent their bodies from being snatched. The whole business of anatomists and body snatchers (the public and satirists seemed to tar them all with the same brush) were lampooned by cartoonists, no surprises we have Hogarth and Rowlandson, but I rather like the one by William Austin.

Clift drawing of Bishop C Royal College of Surgeons

Clift drawing of Italian Boy murderer John Bishop © Royal College of Surgeons

The Anatomist Overtaken by the Watch, by William Austin, 1773 C Museum o...

The Anatomist Overtaken by the Watch, by William Austin, 1773 © Museum of London.

There is so much to see and learn here, objects lent from our leading medical museums, colleges and institutions. In addition to the above described we have portraits of the leading surgeons of the day; medical toolkits (amputation, trepanning etc.); specimens in jars (compulsory!); anatomical drawings and illustrations; tattoo’d skin samples. And it goes on.

The word “macabre” gets bandied about. Not from me. This show is thoughtful, inciteful, beautifully arranged, displayed, lit. The curators are to be congratulated for their selection and how they contextualised all the objects, the whole display. I can’t remember learning so much in such a short time. This mesmerising show has to be one of the exhibitions of this year, and quite possibly next  as well. Don’t miss. 

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men runs at the Museum of London until 14th April 2013. Entry is £9.00, free to Friends, £4.50 to Art Fund members. Other concessions apply. More information.

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