Welcome back for the conclusion of Virginia Rady’s discussion of medicine and practices in the 1800s.
Part one can be read here.

My name is Virginia Rady ( but everyone calls me Sissy) and I have been a nurse practitioner for a year and a half, working in an internal medicine practice. Before that I worked my way up through the ranks at a hospital going from patient care tech, to nurse intern, to nurse, and then charge nurse and preceptor. Healthcare has always been a passion of mine and I think that knowing the history of my profession gives perspective and helps guide future practices. I started being interested in steampunk several years ago, partially out of a love for the fashion and architecture of the Victorian era, but it was the people I met along the way that kept me loving it. This discussion was originally drafted for a panel at The inaugural event of Steampunk Invasion. Hope you enjoy!


Care for some Opium or morphine for that pesky cough?

Prior to the Victorian Era, all surgical procedures were done without any form of anesthesia. It was not uncommon to provide patients with a drink of whiskey prior to a procedure to help them tolerate it. Operations were messy and traumatic.

The use of Nitrous oxide also known as “laughing gas” began for dental procedures in the 1840s – and was also oddly used recreationally at parties.

The first surgical anesthesia was done in Boston at Massachusetts General with ether in 1846. The next year chloroform was introduced. We know from reports that Chloroform was used for surgeries in both the Crimean and American Civil War.

Opium was popular in London and epidemic in China. There were even two wars fought between the British and the Chinese over their attempts to suppress opium trade.

Morphine, a synthetic form of opium, was used in mass quantities during the Civil War to relieve pain from trauma. Towards the end of the Victorian Era – half of regular morphine users were actually medical professionals such as doctors or nurses because they had easy access to it as its use wasn’t regulated by the government. Ironically it was used as a cure for Opium addiction

The phrase snake oil refers to the various unregulated concoctions that could be purchased for all types of ailments. Cough syrups containing alcohol, cocaine and morphine were widely used for a variety of symptoms in both children and adults. Another concoction was called Gripe Water – had alcohol, dill, oil, sodium bicarbonate, sugar, and water

People of Interest

Anyone ever heard of Gray’s Anatomy? Not the TV show, the revered anatomical textbook. The first edition was made available in 1858 and subsequent additions made it the most well known anatomical text ever. Surgeon and anatomist Henry Gray also a Fellow of the Royal Society wrote a text he simply called Anatomy, and edited the second edition of what would later become known as “Gray’s Anatomy”.

Much of its data was yielded from autopsies; which leads to our next group of interesting people from the Victorian Era: Grave robbers or as they were also known Resurrectionists. Medical schools were known to pay for bodies so it became a lucrative carrier choice for the morally bankrupt. It was legal in Britain for anatomists to obtain unclaimed bodies of the poor. Grave robbers would steal the recently buried to sell – which was quite profitable

The first X-ray was done in 1895 by Wilhelm Rontgen of his wife’s hand and would remain our only form of radiological exam until the 1960s.

During the Crimean war, British National Florence Nightingale forever changed the profession of nursing. A brilliant statistician and diligent worker, she emphasized hygiene as a focus of care and trained others in her ways, her good results became legendary and upon return back to London she was asked to start teaching and training more. She is considered the mother of nursing. She raised the prestige of the profession and created standards for care provided. Prior to her interventions many hospital nurses were actually recruited from brothels and had no formal education in nursing –our profession has come a long way


The concept of Hospitals –especially ones for which anyone could be admitted blossomed during Queen Victoria’s rule. She provided a Royal Charter for the “Royal Free Hospital” , years later the first children’s hospital was made. It received support from Charles Dickens, and the author of Peter Pan, J M Barrie. Queen Victoria even sent the hospital toys.

They weren’t like our hospitals today. There were no private rooms: instead, there were large Wards that housed dozens of patients with little privacy. Early hospitals lacked electricity and sometimes adequate plumbing making them often rampant with infectious disease. Wealthy patients continued to be treated at home – as they could afford to pay for home visits

Sanatoriums were opened for patients suffering from Tuberculosis which as I mentioned before was quite common. Treatment included fresh air and rest- many of these were in the Mountains of Switzerland.

There were also public lunatic asylums – which sadly had worse living and care conditions than the hospitals, and by today’s standards would be considered inhumane.

A large span of medical invention, progress, and some bits of oddity have been discussed here. It is my intention to continue research into the subject and share this with you.

1800s Prosthetic

Kevin Steil is the creator of the steampunk news and information resource website, Airship Ambassador, the annual month-long global blogathon, Steampunk Hands Around the World, and is the curator of the online Steampunk Museum. He has been a guest and speaker at a number of conventions, contributed to several books, and has consulted for national media programs and events. He can also officiate your wedding!