Do you think you'd be able to avoid any of this nasty diseases that plagued Victorian England?
Time travel seems like a brilliant idea – unless you find out that you have to rely on the medical care available back in the good old days to treat the many diseases that plagued our ancestors. Romantic idealisation of Victorian England (1837-1901) can often betray the fact that children were lucky to make it past their 5th birthday – and, if you were born at the start of the period, your life expectancy was only in the high 30s… This rose to 49 by the end of the century. The average lives of workmen spanned even less.
One of the greatest killers in this period was tuberculosis – known then as consumption – which claimed between 60,000 and 70,000 lives in every decade of the Victorian era. Contaminated water, malnutrition, poverty, flowing sewerage, overcrowding and smog meant that living in any city, particularly London, was risky…
Consumption (tuberculosis – aka TB)
The term consumption described how the body wastes away and it is ‘consumed’ by this infectious, ancient disease – which would almost always prove deadly until more recent times. Fever, chills and a chronic cough were the main symptoms. Family members who fell ill one after another were simple believed to be particuarly disposed to the bacterial disease – the possibility of consumption being contagious wasn’t seriously considered. Often, many children from the same family would be taken sick with the illness, and die. The bacteria that cause consumption are transmitted through the air, especially via coughs and sneezes, before being breathed in. Antimicrobial drugs are now used to treat the disease.
This was a truly nasty condition that resulted in gangrene of the lower jawbone due to phosphorous poisoning. It mainly affected those who manufactured matches – this process required handing white phosphorous, which built up deposits in the jawbone as a result of prolonged exposure. Symptoms included intense toothache, swelling gums and abscesses in the jawbone – accompanied by a putrid stench as bone tissue rotten away. Affected bones would glow a green-white in the dark. Brain damage was common. The only solution – in order to avoid organ failure and death – was to completely surgically remove the lower jawbone. A terrible conclusion to this ghastly condition.
Cholera, spread by contaminated water or food, is an infectious disease that affects the small intestine. Stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting can cause dehydration, shock and then death. There were awful, recurrent epidemics of the disease in the Victorian era, and its spread was encouraged by the fact that it was believed that it was carried by ‘bad air’ – or, nasty smells, of which in a Victorian city there were plenty – rather than the spread of germs and recognising the importance of good hygiene.
In fact, the famous Victorian nurse and social reformer Florence Nightingale believed firmly in the ‘bad air’ theory, and her insistence of thorough cleaning throughout hospitals in order to eradicate ‘bad air’ resulted in much more sanitary conditions for her patients. There haven’t been any cases of cholera originating in England and Wales for more than 100 years.
A leading cause of infant death in the Victorian period, scarlet fever – occurring during or after strep throat – causes a sore through, a rough rash, chills, flushed cheeks and a swollen tongue. Highly contagious, it was easily spread by coughs and sneezes and could’ve been halted by better hygiene practices. Recent reports have suggested that scarlet fever has been making a comeback – it’s at its highest level of cases for 50 years.
Certainly one of the nastiest diseases, scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C, was often called the ‘scourge of the sea’ – since sailors with limited salty and fatty diets during long-distance voyages would succumb to the disease. Malnourished children wee also frequent victims. Vitamin C keeps bones, skin, tissues and blood vessels healthy. Without it, our bodies can’t replace collage, which leads to symptoms including weakness in joints, red dots on the skin, bleeding gums – as well as irritability, ulcers, shortness of breath, jaundice and oedema (swelling caused by a build-up of fluid) and bulging eyes.