As we’re all probably aware, medicine in the Regency Period left little to be desired in terms of treatments and success rates. We’ve all heard of bleedings and treatments containing everything from arsenic to mercury, but what were some of the medical terms and treatments?
Apoplexy is a term we hear or read a lot in terms of Regency illnesses. When used in a historical context, apoplexy refers to a death preceded by a loss of consciousness, which can be a bit of a catch-all. A person may die of a stroke, massive heart attack, or simply a sudden death by another means and be lumped under apoplexy. Today, apoplexy is used more as a scientific term for bleeding.
Grippe is a term that was a term used for influenza and refers to the constriction of the throat felt by some sufferers. Influenza was thought to be caused by “bad air” and a medical writer of the time, William Buchan, cautioned of hot air. He claimed the hot air dissipated the watery parts of the blood and caused ‘bilious and inflammatory fevers’.
Unfortunately, for those with apoplexy, little could be done, but for those who suffered from other illnesses, where there any reasonable treatments? Apothecaries could dispense tinctures, but a few common remedies did exist. We’ve all heard of the opiate laudanum used for pain. Laudanum, of course, was very addictive, despite its efficacy.
In 1757, Reverend Edward Stone experimented with white willow bark. He dried it, ground it into a powder, and took it in an effort to determine whether it would reduce pain and fever. White willow bark contains Salicin, which is an active part of aspirin. In 1763, he wrote to the Royal Society to report his success with the experiment. For those who were reluctant to rely on laudanum for pain, willow bark offered a suitable alternative as well as a method of controlling fever.
If the patient could sit up and swallow, their caregivers could use an invalid’s cup or feeder cup to help keep them hydrated and nourished with teas and broths. An invalid’s cup resembled a small tea pot without a lid. Some were constructed like tea cups or some of the time period could be made of silver.
Decent medical treatments almost seem crazy when we consider many medical men of the Regency period favored what they called “heroic medicine,” which included aggressive bloodletting, vomiting, intestinal purging, sweating and blistering. Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it?
Todd, Janet & Blank, Antje (editors). The Cambridge Edition of Persuasion. Cambridge University Press (2006)
Wilson, Kim. Tea with Jane Austen. Jones Books (2004)