The role of the individual?

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Introduction The industrial age was a time of great change over the whole of Europe. Scientific thinking and scientific methods were leading to new ways of looking at the world, industrial development and economic growth. This scientific thinking spread to the world of medicine, stimulating individuals to document and research medical knowledge which brought huge improvements to public health. What caused people to be healthy of unhealthy in the industrial age? There were many factors in the industrial age that caused people to be healthy, or unhealthy.

Public health played a large role during this period. The industrial revolution caused massive population increases in factory towns and cities. Wages were very low and the factory owners built cheap back-to-back houses to cope with the thousands of people who moved from the country to work in the mills. The water supply was often communal wells, but waste removal systems were very rare. In these areas, public health actually regressed from the standard set by the renaissance, back to the medieval period with people throwing waste into the streets which often contaminated the water supply.

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On top of this, the factories and mills had very poor working conditions, with their by-products polluting the surrounding area. In 1848 and 1875, the government issued public health acts to make these slums healthier. Due to the crowded conditions of the slums before the public health acts were passed. Infectious diseases like Smallpox and Influenza, along with diseases from contaminated food or water, such as Cholera, Tuberculosis and Typhoid became big killers with regular outbreaks throughout the industrial period. Cholera even overtook the Plague as the big killer.

Epidemics on the scale of those experienced during the industrial age had not been witnessed before. The slums public health is almost identical to that of the early dark ages when compared. But now there were even more people living in close proximity. For the general population. The beginning of the industrial age was a time of regression for health. The slum housing caused many health problems for these people, where before most would have been relatively healthy in the countryside. By the end of the industrial age, general health among the population would have improved once again.

What ideas did people have about the causes and treatments of illness and injuries in the industrial age? Many new theories and treatments were discovered in the industrial period. At the beginning of the age, the main theory for the causes of disease was that rotting materials gave off poisonous gasses that were swept around by the wind, this was called Miasma or bad air. For a long time. Scientists had known about micro-organisms. They thought that these micro-organisms were created by decaying matter, this theory was called ‘Spontaneous Generation’.

In 1861 Louis Pasteur proved that the micro-organisms come from the air, falling onto the matter and causing it to decay. This was called ‘Germ theory’. Thanks to the discovery of the germ theory. Forward thinkers such as Ignaz Semmelweiss and Joseph Lister began to make discoveries in hygiene. Semmelweiss discovered that if he and his nurses washed their hands then the death rate of his patients in the maternity ward would drop. Lister thought that if infection came from outside the body, then he could find something that could kill the germs before they reached the wound.

Lister found that if he used carbolic spray (which was normally used to treat sewage) to cover the room in a thin layer of acid, then the likely-hood of his patient dying from infection was almost nil. This state of total cleanliness would later be called ‘aseptic’. Lady Montague introduced inoculation for smallpox in the 18th century. Inoculation consisted of spreading smallpox matter into an open cut in order to give the patient a mild dose of the virus, which would then prevent them from getting a full, more fatal dose. Due to the inoculations, deaths from smallpox in Maidstone dropped from 16.

3% in the 1740s and early 50s, to just 1. 3% in the late 1780s and the 90s, even though the total death rate actually increased! But the mild dose of smallpox given by the inoculation could still prove fatal, and some people that got the inoculation could become carriers for the disease. In the late 1790s Edward Jenner invented vaccination as a prevention of smallpox. Vaccination was very similar to inoculation, but instead of infecting the person with smallpox, Jenner used cowpox which was a very similar disease often caught by dairy maids.

Jenner observed that dairy maids rarely caught smallpox, after investigating, the smallpox vaccination was the result. Even though the vaccination worked well, there was substantial opposition to its use. Many new medical ideas were opposed simply because they were new and not fully understood. But Jenner couldn’t even say why his vaccination worked. People couldn’t see how a disease that came from cows could protect against a disease that affected people. As Jenner couldn’t answer their questions, many people remained sceptical.

When chloroform was discovered to be an anaesthetic by James Simpson in 1847 it became very popular in use for surgery and child birth. Unfortunately some doctors didn’t know the correct dose to give and mistakes could easily be made, by either giving the patient too little thus not being affective, or too much which could prove fatal. The church also opposed the use of chloroform in child birth. Saying that the Bible dictated women should feel pain during child birth. So again we can see the more conservative people of the time (those reluctant to change and the church), putting up opposition to new progress in the field of medicine.

Luckily, when Queen Victoria used chloroform during the birth of one of her children, she turned the tide in favour of the use of chloroform. Who provided medical care in the industrial age? Many of the healers in the industrial age were similar to those of several hundred years before, but with a few new additions: Quack doctors were still present, offering cheap remedies that often wouldn’t work, but were more often than not all that the poorer classes could afford. Surgeons and physicians were still practising, charging large amounts for their services.

There was though a new type of doctor. One that often treated those that couldn’t normally afford a physician, they were often less specialised than the surgeons or the physicians and serviced a wide area, but they were cheaper, if only just. These doctors would later become the GPs. Chemists had replaced apothecaries and wise women. The Nurse had finally become a recognised profession and women in the home still took care of the day-to-day health of their family. Dispensaries were a new invention. Often staffed by a chemist, nurse and young doctor.


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