Shocking Facts About Surgery in the Victorian Era

Surgery has come a very long way from when it began. Although some forms of surgery have been practiced for centuries, it wasn’t until the Victorian era (1837 – 1901) that many surgical practices were developed. Unfortunately, the people who needed treatment before the Victorian era suffered tremendously, mostly because some treatments were experimental and pain medication wasn’t widely available. Unsurprisingly, the mortality rate reflected that, and it was reported in newspapers, inquests, and various medical journals. Thankfully, the medical field is in a better place now but let’s take a look back at the practices that occurred back then.

1. Chloroform was an Anesthetic 

It’s hard to imagine having surgery without anesthesia but during the Victorian era, it was a fairly common practice. After realizing that this was a problem, doctors began using chloroform in 1847, the first of whom was Scottish obstetrician Sir James Simpson after he passed out from it in his dining room. He even created a chloroform mask to put over patients’ faces moments before surgery began. It became extremely popular and people around the country began using it. Even Queen Victoria used chloroform for the delivery of her last two children.

2. Hot Iron Stopped Bleeding

During the Victorian era when people experienced profuse bleeding, there was an extreme method to stop the blood flow and that was by applying a hot iron to the wound. Cauterization was not a pleasant experience and people often passed out from the pain. The practice was used before the Victorian era as it was documented as far back as 1670, but it was more commonly used during the Victorian era. It has long since been banned in many parts of the world, but it has been employed in emergency situations. 

3. Barbers Were Once Surgeons

During the Victorian era, surgery had a very high mortality rate, and it wasn’t because surgeons weren’t being careful. It was actually because infection would set in once the patients left the table. According to Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian who has researched Victorian practices, “surgeons never washed their instruments or their hands.” She also went on to say that operating tables weren’t washed down either. As such, it should not come as a surprise that infection sets in fairly quickly after surgery, with many postoperative patients dying within a few days to months. It wasn’t until Joseph Lister introduced antiseptic practices that infection rates decreased significantly. 

4. Leeches Extracted Blood

We often see blood-sucking leeches attach themselves to people in various ponds and while it might make your skin crawl, imagine what it would be like if a doctor was the person who put them on you. During the Victorian era, surgeons would put leeches on the body in a practice known as bloodletting. It was thought that bloodletting would cure illnesses by removing the “bad blood”. Apart from causing significant blood loss, it could also cause anemia, a little-known fact back then. 

5. Hospital Were for The Poor

If you were a part of the wealthy class during the Victorian era, your family doctor would attend to you in the comfort of your own home. If you were not, then you would have to go to the hospital to get treatment and it wasn’t as easy as it is now. One day was set aside for accepting new patients and they would be grouped into categories including, “incurable” or “lunatic” (not the best choice of words) for mental conditions. One hospital, the St. Thomas’ Hospital in London even has a bizarre rule stating that no patient would be admitted more than once for the same disease. 


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