I’ve just finished a book about the cholera outbreaks in nineteenth century London. Always good to have a light beach read on the go in the summer months. The overwhelming conclusion I’d draw is that I’d never have wanted to visit any medical practitioner prior to about 1970. Ok, maybe that’s pushing it a bit. Once Louis Pasteur discovered milk back in the 1860s, things improved a little. So maybe we should say 1870. Prior to this era though, everything was complete quackery and likely to do far more harm than good.
One astonishing fact to come out of this particular book was that you were much better off in London’s Homeopathic Hospital in the 1850s than you were in the nearby Middlesex. During the cholera outbreak in Soho, the mortality rate with the homeopaths was 16%, while it climbed to a frightening 53% with the regular medics. The author – a journalist called Sandra Hempel – is no cheerleader for alternative medicine and makes clear that the discrepancy had nothing to do with the efficacy of homeopathy. The fact was that the medical establishment actively killed its patients – usually through blood-letting and associated infections – while the homeopaths just left the unfortunate cholera victims alone and prescribed stuff that wouldn’t do them any harm. (For the scientific pedants out there, I’d also concede that the worst cases may have ended up at the main infirmary, but at the end of the day, cholera is cholera.)
Fast forward to the 1860s and the remedies on offer at the Whitechapel 'orspital in East London included steam inhalation, castor oil, saline lemonade and a substance called podophyllin, which is now used to treat gential warts. When all else failed, patients were injected with opium. All died. If you had the energy, you could have schlepped over to Guy’s where nitrous oxide was prescribed or made a trip to Southampton where they favoured arsenic and injections of turpentine.
It really makes you grateful, doesn’t it, for the common sense of our modern family doctors. “I think you have a touch of the cholera. I’d go home, drink plenty of fluids and take paracetamol. If you’re not better in a week, come back and see us.”
The Medical Detective: John Snow, Cholera and the Mystery of the Broad Street Pump by Sandra Hempel is published by Granta Books.