What Was 19th Century Health Care?

Practitioners of health care in the 19th Century focused on providing care that was generally based on a minimum of causative information. Doctors in 1800 did not have X-rays to help them see inside the body. X-Rays were not discovered until 1895 and the use of them in medicine developed almost immediately to provide one of the first true diagnostic tools. 19th Century health care had very few diagnostic tools. Most 19th Century medical care practices relied almost exclusively on the cataloguing of the symptoms and history of the outcome of similar ailments. 19th Century health may have included doctors care, a visit to an apothecary or if you were very ill and in a hospital. However, the prognosis of all three choices was not typically very good.

Doctors And Hospitals In 1800

Disinfectant was not used in hospitals until the 1870s. In fact, hospitals were very unsanitary until Joseph Lister discovered that the use of carbolic acid aided in reducing the number of infections during operations. 19th Century medical care was a hit or miss adventure, as was going into the hospital. In early hospitals, “curing” a patient did not always mean making them better. Curing usually meant washing, feeding, comforting, or taking care of them while they were sick. Hospitals were and still are unsanitary places in general.

The biggest change in the benefits of hospitals did not occur until penicillin was discovered purely by chance in 1929. Sir Alexander Fleming noticed a mold had developed on a culture plate he had forgetfully left under a microscope. Where the new penicillin mold had grown, the bacteria around it died. Only at this point did the 19th Century health practices really move into 20th century.

19th Century health was very hard on those who were operated on. In fact, the word brutal might be better. It was not until 1846 when an American dentist, William Thomas Green, used ether on a patient while extracting a tooth and the news got out about its success. The new idea of putting the patient to sleep during the operation really caught on.


Today all medicine is supposed to be focused on maintaining, or improving the bodies’ functions and improving the general well-being of the body and all of its complex systems. As 19th Century health care often did not have much basis for a treatment program, it attempted to provide treatments not just hopefully to ease the symptoms or the immediate problem, but also just to make you feel better.

However, some of these medicines were simply not helpful at all. For many, 19th Century health care simply meant a trip to the apothecary to get some medicinal herb or potion. Of course some of the natural remedies were actually medicinal, but an alchemist was not, and is typically still not, a real doctor and sometimes the remedy killed, not healed. By the end of the century the practices of 19th Century medical industry had modernized and the practicing and trained doctor was now at the center of the provision of good care.