19th Century Medicine

16.05.2015 |

Episode #9 of the course “Brief History of Medicine”

Medicine around the world saw growth in leaps in bounds during the 19th century. With improvements in technologies such as the microscope, researchers could better observe and learn about tissues and microorganisms. New theories about cells and germs were proposed, and with these came greater practical approaches to cleanliness, sterilization, and the uses of chemistry in medicine. It became common to elicit assistance with care of wounded soldiers from women, and the new profession of nursing was born. Understanding of the systems of the human body became more complete, and physicians were able to treat symptoms of diseases with fewer side effects to a person’s body.

The development of chemical anesthetics allowed doctors to perform the first extended surgeries. In the past, people typically died during surgery from shock or afterward from infection, but anesthesia helped doctors reduce the number of patient deaths. However, lack of trials and research increased the misunderstandings about some pharmacological substances. For much of the 19th century, cocaine and morphine could be purchased over the counter at drug stores to ease toothaches, sleeplessness, cough, and a number of other common complaints.

One of the most important names in medical advancement in the 19th century was Louis Pasteur, who developed a process of sterilizing materials through “pasteurization.” By simply promoting and proving the importance of heating liquids to destroy microorganisms before serving them to people, he single-handedly reduced the number of infectious diseases spread through unpasteurized milk. He also developed important vaccines for farm animals to prevent the spread of devastating diseases like anthrax and rabies.


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