Advances in Medicine During the 19th Century: Theories & Achievements

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  • 0:02 19th-Century Medical Advances
  • 0:46 Medieval Medicine
  • 1:37 Theories & Discoveries
  • 3:56 Techniques
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore several of the important advances made in medicine during the 19th century, both in general medical knowledge and inventions that improved medicinal technique.

19th Century Medical Advances

When was the last time you were sick enough that you had to go see a doctor? Likely, you went in, waited a while, let the doctor poke and prod you, then received a prescription or some directions that had you feeling better in a few days. The visit is so routine nowadays that barely anyone bats an eye when people mention they've recently seen a doctor.

But as recently as 200 years ago, doctors did not give prescriptions because pharmaceuticals did not exist, and a doctor was as likely to drain enough blood from your veins to kill you as he was to cure your common cold! Indeed, medicine has advanced in leaps and bounds in only a couple centuries. Many of the procedures and chemicals we use today were first pioneered by doctors in the 19th century.

Medieval Medicine

Considering what we know today about the human body and how disease and sickness works, medieval beliefs and practices can be truly terrifying to the modern ear. Most 'doctors' of the medieval and early modern period believed the body was made up of 'humors' and 'temperaments,' which corresponded with the four basic elements: fire, earth, air and water.

Sickness occurred when one of these humors or temperaments was in excess or just generally imbalanced. As such, remedies often required the removal of one of those excesses, such as the bloodletting mentioned before. Additionally, most medieval doctors had little understanding of the human body; many, for instance, still relied on the work of the second century Roman physician Galen, who based most of his theories concerning the structure of the human body on his numerous dissections and vivisections of dogs!

Theories and Discoveries

Fortunately for us, medicinal practices and knowledge changed dramatically in the 19th century. One of the most important revolutions in medicine in the 19th century was the development of cell theory. Though cells were first discovered by Robert Hooke in the 17th century, it was not until the 19th century that advances in microscope technology allowed scientists to observe live cells for the first time. Cell theory, or the idea that all life on earth is made up of cells, grew out of this ability.

Numerous scientists began using the microscope to classify different types of cells and recognize the parts of each. With this cornerstone of medical knowledge achieved, scientists and doctors were able to discover myriad different things about the human body and disease. For instance, one prolific 19th century doctor, Rudolf Virchow developed theories concerning growth and reproduction, including egg fertilization, through studying cells. He also was the first doctor to realize that cell mutation and runaway cell growth was what caused cancer, perhaps becoming the first doctor to identify the disease which still plagues humanity today.

A concurrent and complimentary theory which emerged from the increased study of the human body and health was germ theory, the idea that sickness and disease is caused by microorganisms and can be spread from one person to another through the spread of infectious agents. Prior to the 19th century, mankind was relatively in the dark about what caused disease. Some thought the diseases generated spontaneously, while others contributed disease to foul-smelling air. However, in the 19th century, the enhanced power of the microscope and the enterprising research done by various sciences changed these conceptions.

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