In the 19th Century, Going to the Doctor Could Kill You | Nat Geo Explores

by birtanpublished on June 29, 2020


they deliver babies they help you when

you're sick they are the ones who

examine all the things doctors keep her

health in check and they spend years of

training to do it but that wasn't always

the case


medicine for most of the 19th century

was completely different to how it is

now in America there was virtually no

regulation at all

anybody could declare himself or herself

to be a physician most physicians

graduated never having practiced at the

bedside never having performed surgery

and they probably never even seen a

laboratory this was not a lucrative

profession it didn't tend to attract

people coming from money and very few

people were willing to invest a lot of

money in an education so basically it

was a job no one really wanted to do on

top of that medical science itself was

still unsophisticated many surgeons

weren't totally sure what even caused

infections so to treat some of them it

often just cut off a person's limbs no

big deal they were also pretty mad about

keeping their practice sterile if you're

a surgeon in the 1860s the 1870s you

might well try and keep your wards clean

and the surgical table clean ish yep yes

you're very likely to be operating in

another apron which is staged and

encrusted with blood and other bodily

fluids which have accumulated over

perhaps decades in fact many surgeons

would wear their bloody leather apron as

a badge of honor because it revealed to

everybody just how many operations you'd


it would take years before they learned

how unsanitary this was and before they

decided hey maybe we shouldn't do that

up until then doctors and scientists

slowly began to prove that illnesses and

infections were caused by microscopic

organisms this idea called the germ

theory was a big deal at the time but a

lot of people didn't buy it people would

say there's absolutely no way that a

tiny microscopic organism could possibly

kill an organism as big as we are you

ignore some of us Semmelweis was a

Hungarian who was working in a maternity

ward in Austria and in the 1840s he

noticed that women who gave birth in one

particular Ward they were dying much

more commonly than the mothers who were

giving birth in a nearby ward there was

a big difference between these two wards

in the first one doctors and medical

students who spent part of the day in

the morgue and the rest of the day in

deliveries they were passing these germs

from the corpses to the first thing

women and leaving extraordinarily

tragically high numbers of babies

without a mother the other ward was run

by nurses who did not participate in

autopsies and that's why those mothers

were far far less off and dying

Semmelweis argues that some kind of

living matter is killing these women and

the doctors were transferring it from

the dead to the living so we installed a

bowl of disinfectant and insisted that

all of the carers wash their hands in it

the rates of death plummeted the sad

thing is people still didn't get on

board with similar vices argument about

this living matter but why there were a

lot of reasons but one of them is that

it was absolutely intolerable for a

large number of physicians and


to recognize that there unwittingly

caused the deaths of hundreds or even

thousands of women

many of them just simply couldn't accept

this but by the 1880s after more and

more scientific proof a lot of Surgeons

started accepting the fact that germs

caused illness they even began to make

some changes they're starting to wash

their hands they're also starting to use

tools which don't have any spaces where

bacteria could gather you think about

your classic scalpel you have a wooden

handle and then you have the metal blade

any number of places in which bacteria

could secrete themselves and then cause

infection by the early 1900's are

starting also to wear latex gloves so

surgery become safer and it was in less

than a generation that surgery was

becoming revolutionized in this way and

once physicians and scientists knew

which germs are causing certain

illnesses they developed the first

vaccines to target specific diseases and

then antibiotics to treat infections and

save a lot of looms and some of ice it

wasn't until germ theory was fully

established that people looked back and

rediscovered some of ice in the early

20th century the late 19th century

statues to him are erected all sorts of

biographies are written he's hailed as a

great hero once surgeons could guarantee

a clean environment in which to operate

the entire field of surgery just

awesomes I think becomes the most

prestigious field of medicine he also

see huge changes in the way doctors were

trained by the early 20th century over

100 medical schools were founded in the

US and training became more intensive

medical students began to truly learn

the science behind medicine it was a

first time in human history the medical

scientists really knew what caused

people to die of infectious disease the

immediate offspring of this more public

health better public health better

cleaner so

is already starting to save lives it's

quite a remarkable thing to see


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