A Tour Through Regency England Medicine – What’s Changed and What Hasn’t

By Debra-Ann Kummoung

I wanted to do a spot on something a little different – medicine practices in the 1800s and was being sent to Bedlam really that much of a threat.  I love Regency England, specifically the time of Jane Austen’s most famous books.  Not a big surprise there as the books I write are Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF) and I focus on Pride & Prejudice variations.  I love   courtly manners, the dress and just about anything in that time period, with one exception, the medicine.  As a modern woman, I cannot imagine what things were like medically and I wouldn’t want to try.

The first thing I wanted to understand was the different between an apothecary and a physician.  An apothecary was someone of a lower social class only just above a tradesman who was not paid for his services and typically served the needs in rural areas.  The only thing that an apothecary could charge for was any drugs that he was able to convince someone to buy.

A physician on the other hand was a person of higher social class and were educated and trained men.  Some served the same family while others would move to various regions of the country – like Bath – where there were many physicians and apothecaries to be found.

In many books I have read over the years, I would often read where families would use Bedlam as an incentive to get someone to do as they wished.  Well that is because Bedlam was a true place to fear.  It was not just a threat to make family members fall into whatever plans they had in store for them.  It was a virtual hell.  The patients were treated more like inmates than people and most that entered never came out again.  In recent years they have discovered mass graves from the people who died in Bedlam.

Now, at this point, I’m sure you are wondering why I would choose to write about such a sad and dreary subject.  Well many of our common everyday ailments would land many of us ladies in Bedlam.  Let me give you a few examples and keep in mind that the men made and enforced the rules – migraines, menses, divorce, the war and many, many other strange conditions. 

Medicine of this time was truly medieval to me and sadly many people landed up addicted to the medicines that were supposed to help make them better.  While it is true that today’s medicine has made leaps in bounds in its medical advances, there are still some things that advances cannot overcome – stigmas assigned to certain conditions that existed then and still exist in today’s society.

Now, I’m sure you might be wondering why I choose to write about medicine and that is because in my first book, Falling for Elizabeth Bennet, Elizabeth has a medical condition.  I gave her epilepsy (falling sickness in Regency times).  I did this for a few reasons.  One, it’s not something you often find in a book of any kind and two, it was one I could personally relate to.  You see, I have epilepsy and I have experience first-hand the distain or belief that someone could get epilepsy just by being near me (doesn’t work that way – I’m not contagious like the flu).

Check out this list of reasons for people to be admitted to Bedlam in the 1800s and while the listed well after the true Regency period, I image most of the reasons were still relevant.  I would like to point out that according to this list, I think most of us would have been committed for the grave crime of novel reading….

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