Before the 18th century, medical treatment was for most people a matter of traditional folk remedies supplied by popular healers (for example, wise or cunning women), although a number of professional surgeons existed from at least the 16th century and some charitable hospitals had been established in the Middle Ages. There was widespread acceptance of illness as divine judgement and, at a time of high mortality rates, an almost universal preoccupation with the possibility of death. Steps taken to avoid illness included the drinking of spa water, blood-letting, purges and emetics.
Health in the 18th Century
Death from starvation was common. Many women died in childbirth and still more children died in infancy. Plague had disappeared from London with the Great Fire and the black rats which spread the disease, but there were regular outbreaks of smallpox, dysentery, typhoid and typhus (or gaol fever). Medical treatment was limited to quinine for ague (malaria), mercury for syphilis, and laudanum (opium and alcohol) for pain relief, while ineffective methods like bleeding, purges, vomit induction, artificial sweating, cold bathing and restriction of food and water were promoted by most physicians.
Medical science, thanks largely to the contributions made by universities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow, made huge advances in the 18th century, including inoculation against smallpox. Anaesthetics and antiseptic procedures allowed major operations to be performed in the 19th century, while the late 19th century saw the beginnings of the struggle against bacteria and sepsis.
A number of charitable houses existed from the Middle Ages. The majority were in the form of charities, wherein the residents prayed for the souls of their benefactors. Some housed the elderly and infirm; others served a specific purpose, such as leper hospitals. Most medieval charitable hospitals were closed down at the Reformation, though some private bequests continued afterwards.
In the 18th century, a growing population and developments in medical science led to the growth of the ‘modern’ hospital and the legacies of people such as John Addenbrooke to build them.