During the 18th century there was a quickening in economic activity in the western world. Historians call this the time of the Industrial Revolution. The process continued during the 19th century, with an even greater quickening of invention and scientific discovery.
Huge progress was made in identifying and preventing many diseases. People felt that humankind was becoming god-like in its knowledge and achievements, and that nothing was impossible except the cure of infectious disease - a problem that continued to cause much misery.
Ten key developments
Some knowledge of 19th-century civilisation will help you understand 19th-century medicine.
Developments in the 19th-century included:
- A great explosion of industry (and industrial diseases such as dermatitis, lung disease and 'phossy jaw').
- Urbanisation (and public health problems that included 'filth diseases' such as cholera and typhus).
- The growth of empires (and contact with new diseases such as yellow fever).
- The growth of immense wealth, based on trade and industry (which created the money to spend on medical research and public health).
- Great advances in technology (which led to medical machines such as the electrocardiograph).
- Improved communications (allowed medical knowledge to spread - doctors gained information from all over the world).
- The growth of science and research (which led to medical breakthroughs).
- Democracy and socialism (people believed they had the right to good health). The right to health was one of the 'rights of man' claimed by working people during the French Revolution (which was why the medical revolution of the 19th century started in France).
- New ideas about evolution (Darwin) and genetics (Mendel) - broke the control of the Church over medicine and medical ethics.
- Wars were waged on a greater scale (creating mass injuries that were hitherto unknown, and required new medical and surgical techniques).