It isn't a surprise that in the 19th century, health standards were much lower than they are today. Life expectancy in 1850 was only 40 years old.
People rarely went to the hospital, and very few home remedies really worked. Laudanum (a tincture of opium) was used for severe pain, but other drugs such as aspirin did not appear on the market until 1899.
Surgical procedures were often performed in the home under less-than-hygienic conditions. A strong shot of whisky or a rag wrapped in ether were used as anesthetics. Later, chloroform became the anesthetic of choice.
From advertisements in local newspapers, I discovered a few so-called “cures” offered by medicine men who roamed the streets in the Victorian era selling their wares to the unsuspecting:
Since the earliest days of the Fort in Victoria, BC, a plethora of these medicine men drifted in and out of town, advertising themselves as doctors but having little or no medical skill. Most were soon found to be imposters, earning them the title of “quack.”
By contrast, the professional doctor was a much-respected man, despite having few genuine cures at his disposal. He would make home calls only if someone was very sick. Most people could not afford medical attention, and if a doctor was called out, he knew that he would probably not be paid. As a result, many people turned to those “medicine men” who roamed the streets selling their wares and offering cures for “all that ails you—from hangnails to falling hair.”
Well-established doctors in Victoria such as Dr. John Helmcken were incensed by these imposters and the “quackery” they practiced.
By the time the 19th century drew to a close, a group of established Victoria physicians (Helmcken, Fraser, Hannington, Holden, Carter, Milne, Robertson and Hall) had formed a medical association to finally regulate the profession and give it the respect it deserved.
But many people still died far too young.
Women frequently died in childbirth, and people continued to expire from such simple ailments as the common cold turning to pneumonia, infections, or malnutrition over a long period.
Coroners’ reports written between 1865 and 1937 reveal many other strange causes of death, such as “poisoning while in a state of insanity” or “shooting while temporarily insane.”
I also discovered that two men in 1872 died after eating poisonous mushrooms, and two others lost their lives to a knife cut and a gunshot wound, respectively. Many committed suicide or were listed as having died from shock.
One person was attacked by bears in 1873, and another died from a rock falling on him! The following year, one man “took an overdose of a drug used for sun stroke”—perhaps sold to him by one of Victoria’s street medicine men.
Railway workers’ deaths were also numerous, especially among the Chinese population, and many inquests were held after such tragedies as the explosion on board the steamship Queen of the Pacific in 1886, the Point Ellice Bridge collapse in 1896, and the collision between freight and passenger trains on the BC Electric Railway in 1909.
So, even though we might complain about today’s medical plans, if you live in Canada and become sick, aren’t you glad you live in the 21st century?
What do you think? Please leave a comment below.