This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library Image from the history picture library

Subject: ‘Medicine’

All of these articles and images are available for licensing: click on an image to see further details and licensing options; contact us about licensing textual content.

Francis Brett Young became a great writer about Africa

Posted in Africa, Historical articles, History, Literature, Medicine, World War 1 on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about Francis Brett Young first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

Francis Brett Young,  picture, image, illustration
Francis Brett Young leading his wounded patients to safety

They cut back the thorn bushes and unloaded the panniers from the mules. It was not the best place for a dressing-station but it would have to serve.

The Maxims were crackling ahead of them and other machine guns stammered suddenly. The first wounded were stumbling in and Francis Brett Young, the medical officer, was soon busy, stripping off field-dressings and checking the classification of wounds. He caught a brief glimpse of men filing up to the line; their helmets bore the striped brown flash of the Rhodesians. Then his orderlies warned him that supplies of water were low. He sent them to fill cans at the river. They scampered back empty-handed. German askaris, they babbled, had crossed to this bank and were approaching. At that moment rifles barked nearby. A wounded soldier coming out of his morphine doze, began to scream: ‘They’re coming! They’re coming.’

Ask most people about the First World War and they will tell you at once of the horrors of the Western Front, of Gallipoli and of Lawrence in Arabia. But the war reached the farthest limits of the British empire and men from the British colonies in Africa soon found themselves embroiled. British, Rhodesian, Indian and South African troops fought the Germans in the Cameroons, in Togoland and in German South West Africa.

The longest African campaign was in German East Africa (later Tanganyika, now Tanzania), where, under the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the imperial forces were held at bay by the brilliant German commander, Von Lettow-Vorbeck. The campaign had begun badly with a seaborne assault on the port of Tanga, at the head of a valuable railway. It failed disastrously. For the next year the campaign was bogged down until the South African leader Jan Smuts took command and, with a series of lighting moves, took the initiative once more.

In May 1916 Smuts ordered a second attack on Tanga, this time by land. The allies had to cut their way through the worst sorts of terrain – stretches of impenetrable bush, dense forests and stinking swamps. They had to drive the Germans and their native troops (askaris) from strongly-held positions. And they had to survive countless forms of disease. This last enemy was the worst. So much depended on the extent to which medical officers like the 32-year-old Brett Young could keep the assault force up to fighting strength.

Read the rest of this article »

Charlatans pedalled scientific gimmickry to a gullible public

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Medicine, Science on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 578 published on 10 February 1973.

American advertisement,  picture, image, illustration
A typical American advertisement for a vegetable pain killer

In 1800, orthodox medicine still wasn’t anywhere near the highly-developed science it is today. There was still mistrust of doctors amongst a large number of the population, and the services of the “quack” practitioners were still in some demand. When you consider that, on average, one out of every two patients who underwent an operation at that time died, it is hardly surprising that people did not exactly rush to the doctor when they felt ill.

There were two main causes for this high mortality. The first was that there was no anaesthetic available, so many patients died from the shock of the extreme pain. Secondly, there was virtually no hygiene of any kind in hospitals and all sorts of infections flourished.

It was Lister who discovered the importance of keeping operating rooms as clean as possible, as well as the hands and instruments of the surgeons. The first main advance in anaesthesia came from an American doctor named William Morton, who first used ether in the middle 1800s. However, ether caused burns round the nose and mouth when applied and doctors looked for a satisfactory replacement. This finally came in January, 1847, when James Simpson of Edinburgh first used a new drug called Chloroform in an operation. It was immediately successful.

With medicine still at such a comparatively crude level, it is no wonder that there were still quacks around making a good living. They might not be able to do any better than “real” doctors, but they probably could not do worse. In 1827 the painter, Constable, was concerned about the health of his young son who was suffering from whooping cough. A quack recommended that the child should be “passed three times over and three times under a donkey.” Before you laugh at that absurd cure, you must remember that Constable only went to a quack as a last resort because not a single orthodox doctor was able to help him at all.

The mystic magic of the Middle Ages’ quacks was now being replaced by scientific gimmickry. Predictably, it was in the United States of America that this new breed of charlatans grew fastest and strongest. Herbal medicines, many with a secret ingredient that was 90 per cent pure alcohol, came and went. The most famous of these has found its way into popular culture in a most remarkable way. If you think back almost exactly four years, you might remember a chart-topping song by a Liverpool group called “The Scaffold” entitled “Lily The Pink.” Amazingly enough, this song had its roots in a very successful patent medicine marketed by the Pinkham family in America in the mid-1850s. The moving spirit of the company was the indomitable Mrs Lydia Pinkham, whose picture appeared in many newspaper advertisements for her “Vegetable Compound.”

A popular song of the period had words that went something like this:

“Oh, we sing, we sing, we sing of Lydia Pinkham,
And her love of the human race.
How she sells her Vegetable Compound,
And the papers they publish her face.”

Read the rest of this article »

When medical science came of age the quacks were threatened

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Medicine, Royalty on Tuesday, 4 March 2014

This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 577 published on 3 February 1973.

Martin Van Butchell,  picture, image, illustration
To attract clients to his dubious practice, Martin Van Butchell rode down Rotten Row, London on a white pony painted with purple spots, by Angus McBride

The Glorious Revolution of December, 1688, had deposed the unpopular Catholic King James II and brought to the shores of Britain the dry little Dutchman, William III and his English wife, Mary II, James’s eldest daughter. The country rejoiced and prosperity was promised for all.

In every town and hamlet the ‘quacks’ – travelling pedlars of all forms of medicine, often with the most dubious qualifications – prepared their salves and potions. Most were content to sell their wares at markets and fairs, but there were others who set their sights a little higher.

William Read, once a tailor, and Roger Grant, once a tinker, were both quacks who rose to become oculists to Queen Anne herself. Of the two, Grant was marginally the better qualified – he at least was able to read and write. Read was later knighted for his services and employed a poet to produce some immodest verses in praise of himself. This first verse is the least conceited:

“While Britain’s sovereign scales such worth has weighed
And Anne herself her smiling favours paid,
That sacred hand does your fair chaplet twist
Great Read, her own entitled oculist.”

Such vanity was just begging to be put down, but no one ever discovered who wrote the epigram that ran swiftly round the London coffee houses:

“Her Majesty, sure, was in a surprise,
Or else was very short-sighted,
When a tinker was sworn to look after her eyes
And the mountebank Read was knighted.”

Read the rest of this article »

Elizabeth I preferred her magician to common roguish quacks

Posted in Historical articles, History, Magic, Medicine, Royalty, Superstition on Monday, 3 March 2014

This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 576 published on 27 January 1973.

Quack dentist,  picture, image, illustration
A quack might have tried to slip a worm into the sufferer’s mouth and then pull it out again, claiming that it had been the worm that caused the toothache, by Angus McBride

We have seen how the virulent plagues which devastated Europe in the Middle Ages led to an enormous increase in the number of travelling medicine-men. These “quacks” (from the Dutch “quacksalver,” who was a person who wandered the country selling salves and medicines) roamed England, shouting their wares at markets and fairs. Generally speaking, they had scant medical skill, but there is little doubt that they, at least, offered hope in an age when doctors were few.

The 14th century had slipped away unmourned and men rejoiced in the warmth and security of the Tudor Renaissance. A revolution in medicine was beginning and the first volleys were being fired in a campaign that was to weaken – and ultimately remove – the power and influence of the quacks.

An early attempt had been made in 1423 by the Guild of Physicians to ban “all quacks and empiriks and the knavish men and women who do presume to practise some sort of Physick.” The trouble with this awe-inspiring and thunderous pronouncement was that there was no real way that it could be implemented. So, the quacks continued their work unchecked.

The Reformation, with its reappraisal of traditional religious values, brought a virtual end to the selling of holy relics – alleged to have miraculous healing powers. When exposed to the chilling light of reason, many of the revered objects were simply absurd. Typical of many was the phial – reputedly containing the blood of Christ – that had led to many wonderful cures at Hales in Gloucestershire. On examination it was found to contain nothing more than the blood of a goose, renewed at weekly intervals.

In 1542, the official surgeons had abused their privileged position to such an extent that King Henry VIII produced what became known as the “Quacks’ Charter.” It pointed out that the folk-healers and quacks often did more good and had more skill than some of the recognised doctors. Also, they served the poor better and often charged them less.

Not many people nowadays actually like going to the dentist, but try and imagine what it must have been like in Tudor times. If you went to one of the many fairs, a rogue of a tooth-drawer might well try and slip a worm into your mouth and then take it out again, claiming it had been the worm that was causing the toothache.

If that did not work, you could try another booth, where a different quack – to the accompaniment of loud music and illuminated by smoky rush lights – would tap your teeth with a small bone hammer. When he found one that did not ring true, he would simply reach in with a strong fore-finger and thumb and tug it out! Primitive, but it probably worked quite well. Infected teeth could, quite literally, lead to death. Queen Elizabeth I suffered from this and, it was alleged, her rotting and poisoned teeth probably hastened her end.

Read the rest of this article »

The growth of travelling quacks came with the upsurge of Plagues

Posted in Historical articles, History, Medicine, Religion, Superstition on Saturday, 1 March 2014

This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 575 published on 20 January 1973.

Quack Hunters,  picture, image, illustration
John Halle, a leading Elizabethan surgeon, was bad for the Quacks’ business; he had many a quack whipped out of town by Angus McBride

Medicine is now one of the most specific and delicate of the sciences. All of us owe our very existence to some aspect of the modern doctor’s skill. Yet, how many of you have ever stopped to think about how the healing art – and it used to be called an art, not a science – began? It’s a long way from the clean, polished operating-theatre of a contemporary hospital to the dim, distant ages of magic and folk-lore, when the practitioners of medicine were little better than the most primitive of jungle witch-doctors.

To give you some idea of how long medicine has been established and how methods have improved, let’s go back for half a million years – back to Neolithic Britain. It’s a hard, dark time, with small groups of men fighting for a meagre existence in a tough and brutal environment.

One member of the tribe has been ill with the ‘falling sickness’ – probably what we would call ‘epilepsy’-and has been brought to the healer. He knows that this illness is caused, as are most ailments, by a devil being trapped somewhere in the patient’s body. In this case it is in the skull. So the simple and obvious answer is to release it. Using only sharpened flints, the healer would cut away the skin and saw a small hole in the skull of his patient. Once this was done, it was assumed that the devil would flee through the hole and the patient might recover. What is quite astounding, is that archaeological evidence points to the fact that some men actually did survive this savage operation. It was a fore-runner of the modern operation called ‘trepanning’ and must have called for extraordinary fortitude from the patient, when you remember that there was no kind of anaesthetic in those days. Just a few sympathetic friends or relations to hold one down.

Medical skill progressed fast during the rise of the Greek and Roman Empires, though there was still a deal of religious mysticism connected with the art. Then came the surge of the Goths and Visigoths which plunged the civilised world into the Dark Ages.

During the Middle Ages things improved and it is during this period that we first notice the emergence of the breed of men who concern us here. The rather mysterious group of medical dealers who operate somewhat beyond the fringes of recognised and organised medicine. Men whose living is tainted with the stigma of disrepute – the “Quacks.”

Nobody seems too sure about how the word “quack” originated, but the most common and likely suggestion is that the word is an abbreviation for quacksalver. Originally it was a Dutch word, meaning a person who “quacked” or sold salves, patent medicines and cure-alls.

Read the rest of this article »

Conan Doyle created the world’s most famous detective

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Law, Literature, Medicine, War on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

This edited article about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 556 published on 9 September 1972.

Conan Doyle,  picture, image, illustration
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle served as a physician during the Boer War by Roger Payne

The young Scottish-born doctor racked his brains for names for the leading characters in the detective story he was planning. He scribbled in his notebook “Sherringford Holmes” and “Ormond Sacker.” No! He scratched them out and finally substituted after some thought, the names “Sherlock Holmes” and “Dr. Watson.” They were names which were to become famous throughout the world as the greatest master of detection in fiction and his bumbling assistant, and biographer.

The character of Holmes is said to have been based on that of an eminent Edinburgh surgeon, Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell had continually impressed upon his students the necessity of closely observing all the facts concerning a patient before making a diagnosis. Holmes’ method of detection depended on a similar careful examination of minute details and a logical process of deduction.

His identity and character established, the sleuth, with deer-stalker hat, pipe, violin, and of course the faithful doctor, moved into rooms at 221B Baker Street, London. His first adventure “A Study in Scarlet” was published in 1887 but real fame did not come until four years later when the “Strand Magazine” took up the Holmes saga. Readers began to clamour for more and still more of these stories. The poor young doctor found himself becoming a rich and famous man. But fame had its price: Sherlock Holmes took over his life. He was forced to devote so much time to these stories that he had to neglect the writing of the historical romances which he preferred. Eventually he became so exasperated that he decided to “kill-off” Holmes and be rid of him for ever. The “death” caused a public outcry and after eight years Conan Doyle had to relent and Holmes was resurrected to the joy of his fans. Queues of Holmes’ admirers formed outside the offices of the magazine where the new story was being published.

Although he was such a prolific writer Conan Doyle had many other interests. Born in Edinburgh in 1859 of Irish parentage he was educated at Stonyhurst and later went to Edinburgh University to study medicine. When he had graduated he set up practice in Southsea where he was so poor that he was grateful for a fee of one and sixpence, regularly pawned his watch and even crept out at night to clean his own brass plate to save the expense of someone to do the job for him!

He was a keen sportsman, especially good at cricket and boxing. In the novel “Rodney Stone” Conan Doyle made good use of his knowledge of boxing.

Doyle was a real-life detective with a profound interest in people’s problems and a desire to see justice fairly carried out. On at least two occasions he was instrumental in getting the names of innocent men cleared. In 1903 a young lawyer, George Edalji, was tried and convicted on not very strong evidence of maiming cattle and killing a pit pony. After serving three years of his seven years’ sentence he was released but forbidden to practice his profession. In despair he turned to Conan Doyle for help.

Doyle noticed that Edalji was extremely short-sighted. How could a man with such a disability commit such crimes in a field at night? He took up the young man’s cause and managed to clear his name – and found the real culprit. The other famous case was that of Oscar Slater accused of murdering an old woman. Slater was sentenced to life imprisonment but not being at all sure that the evidence was conclusive, Conan Doyle took up the case. It was not until 1927, however, that the discovery of new evidence brought about Slater’s release. Conan Doyle forced Parliament to open an enquiry and Slater was publicly vindicated and awarded £6,000 compensation.

Read the rest of this article »

Lister’s new antiseptic made patients safer from infection

Posted in Historical articles, History, Medicine, Science on Friday, 7 February 2014

This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 547 published on 8 July 1972.

Old operating theatre,  picture, image, illustration
Joseph Lister pioneered the use of antiseptics in surgery by Peter Jackson

Joseph Lister was born in 1827 at Upton in Essex where he grew up as part of a Quaker community. Besides successfully running the family’s wine business Joseph’s father had a keen interest in science an interest which was shared by his son.

While still a boy Joseph told his family that he wanted to become a doctor. His father was not sure that this was a good choice of profession but once he realised Joseph was intent on the idea he backed him in his ambition. He insisted however that before taking up medicine Joseph should have as wide an academic training as possible so he entered University College, London to read for a B.A. degree, and later he went to University College Hospital and obtained his Bachelor of Medicine degree in 1852. Soon afterwards Lister became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.

At first he took up research and the publication of the results of experiments proving that the iris of the eye has two muscles which dilate and contract the pupil brought him to the notice of the world of medicine.

But surgery held more fascination for him than medicine. Lister applied to one of the leading European schools of surgery, the Edinburgh Medical School, for permission to study there. He was accepted and became the pupil and friend of Professor James Symes one of Edinburgh’s greatest surgeons. After some months as Symes’ pupil he became his house-surgeon. Shortly after this appointment the post of lecturer in Surgery to the Edinburgh College of Surgeons and Surgeon to the Royal Infirmary became vacant and with Symes encouragement Lister applied for this position and was accepted.

Read the rest of this article »

The exemplary fortitude and heroism of Edith Cavell

Posted in Bravery, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Medicine, World War 1 on Thursday, 30 January 2014

This edited article about World War One first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 532 published on 25 March 1972.

Edith Cavell,  picture, image, illustration
Edith Cavell by James E McConnell

At midnight they had only a few hours to live and in the first light of dawn they were taken out and shot. The man died bravely – and so did the woman.

The woman was Edith Cavell, her execution stirred up a world-wide storm of protest, and her nobility in the face of danger and death won her undying fame as one of the finest women in history.

Edith Cavell was born in 1865, in a small town in Norfolk. She was a vicar’s daughter who grew up in the quiet environment typical of a country clergyman’s home.

When she was 25, Edith did what many young ladies of her sort did in those days. She became a governess, but perhaps a little more adventurous than most in that she took a job abroad, looking after the children of a well-to-do Brussels lawyer.

While still in her twenties, she inherited a little money, and this enabled her to spend some time travelling on the Continent. It was while she was in southern Germany, that she first became interested in hospital work and soon after this she decided that what she really wanted to do was to become a nurse. In 1896, when she was 31, she came back to England to train at a big London hospital.

Edith was scarcely out of her training when she had a chance to show that she was not going to be just an ordinary nurse. With complete disregard for her own health, or even her life, she worked tirelessly and devotedly right through an epidemic of typhoid fever which broke out in Kent. Not long after that, while she was matron of a nursing home in Manchester, she worked with the same dedication to improve the health of the working-class people of the area.

But her destiny lay elsewhere – abroad, in that same city of Brussels where she had taken her first job. In 1907, when she was in her early forties, a famous Belgian surgeon invited her to Brussels to undertake the modernisation of his nurses’ school along the lines of the one that had been founded by Florence Nightingale.

Edith soon proved herself worthy of her famous predecessor. It was due to her efforts that a widespread and efficient nursing organisation was built up throughout Belgium.

She also did a great deal to improve the status of the nursing profession. Before her time, nursing in Belgium had been undertaken by nuns, or by domestic servants. By training her nurses properly, insisting that patients treat them with respect, and by getting the doctors they worked with to give them their support, Edith Cavell made nursing such a well-regarded profession that wealthy and even titled Belgian families began to permit their daughters to take up this kind of work.

But storm clouds were gathering over Europe. The First World War was imminent and when it broke out, Edith was on holiday in England. She could have been excused for staying there, too, but she wasn’t that sort of woman. She hurried as fast as she could back to her nurses’ home, which had now been turned into a Red Cross hospital.

Read the rest of this article »

The Black Death decimated Europe’s population

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Medicine on Saturday, 25 January 2014

This edited article about the Black Death first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 527 published on 19 February 1972.

Black Death,  picture, image, illustration
The Black Death by Ron Embleton

There was something horribly sinister about the twelve stoutly-built Genoese galleys which meandered into the harbour of Messina in Sicily one fine day in 1347.

The population of the town who turned out to meet them saw that the crews were delirious. Many had already died.

But disease in the Middle Ages was part of the insanitary make-up of everyday life and the arrival of the sick seamen did not cause much of a stir.

Soon, however, the population of this rough and raw Sicilian port began to succumb like flies from the same symptoms as the visiting crews.

The disease, which lasted three violent days, usually ended on the fourth with death. Soon the whole town was a pathetic sight, a gloomy morgue of locked doors and hungry dogs yapping at street corners.

As soon as the population realized that the Genoese galley crews were responsible for bringing in the disease they hurriedly rushed them out of port. But too late. The disease, or rather plague, had already shot like wildfire into the rest of Sicily, slaying vast numbers in villages and towns.

The name the people gave to this extraordinary plague was the Black Death – probably the worst single disaster to strike Europe in the Middle Ages. A bubonic plague, it swept over the Continent and was responsible for not only wiping out the bulk of medieval society but also for changing the social structure of the times.

After the Black Death had passed, the old conception in Britain of lord and serf disappeared. The shortage of manpower at last gave the humble serf his chance to establish his right to better pay and better conditions. But what a sacrifice was made before this eventually happened.

Read the rest of this article »

Louis Pasteur helped to conquer many fatal diseases

Posted in Animals, Historical articles, History, Institutions, Medicine, Science on Friday, 24 January 2014

This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 527 published on 19 February 1972.

Pasteur experiments on sheep,  picture, image, illustration
Louis Pasteur sees the results of his experiment on sheep with a vaccine for anthrax by Peter Jackson

Madame Meister of Alsace held the hand of her nine-year-old son Joseph, lying on a stretcher.

“It was a mad dog, m’sieur. Fourteen times it bit him. The doctor told me to bring him to you.”

Louis Pasteur the great French chemist, knew why the boy had been sent to him. He was experimenting with a vaccine against rabies: a disease which affects mad animals.

But Pasteur had never yet dared to try the vaccine on a human being.

By now Pasteur was well acquainted with rabies. Those people bitten by a rabid dog almost certainly developed a disease called hydrophobia, with symptoms similar to rabies.

Hydrophobia attacks the brain and spinal cord and induces madness and certain death.

In his experiments Pasteur found that when he removed and dried part of an animal which had died from rabies the virus of the disease gradually weakened.

And when he injected the weakened virus into an animal that had been bitten by a mad dog, rabies did not develop.

He had made animals immune to rabies.

But humans? How could he ever know if the vaccine he had made would ever work on them? For in injecting the virus into human beings he would in fact be injecting the dreaded germs of rabies – however much they were weakened. Pasteur made his decision.

Read the rest of this article »