Five Victorian diseases - and their medical pioneers

Cancer, Alzheimer's, malaria, cirrhosis … just some of the many diseases that we face as members of the twenty-first century. But what came before them? What medical battles did the Victorians have to suffer through, and who were their medical pioneers?

1. We'll start with the big one: cholera. The scariest part of this disease (aside from the diarrhoea and the vomiting) was its disregard for the class system. Anyone could contract the disease, from Joe Factory Worker to Prince Albert, no one was safe. One man brave enough to challenge "King Cholera" was John Snow, who, in a public health report, linked the killer to a water pump in a London backstreet. The disease was later found by the German scientist, Robert Koch, to be caused by the vibrio cholerae microbe, but not before the illness had killed over 53,000 people in the London 1848 epidemic alone, rendering cholera a truly deadly Victorian disease.

2. Diphtheria. This disease was most commonly contracted by children and was characterised by the formation of a thick grey membrane around the tonsils, resulting in breathing problems, and often death. It also happened to be extremely contagious, alongside being difficult to differentiate from just your regular sore throat. Therefore until the late 1850s, Victorian doctors were at a loss as to how to combat this deadly disease. However after studying diphtheria, Robert Koch identified the Corynebacterium diphtheria bacterium to be the disease's cause, and with the help of a research team, developed an antitoxin to rid London of another killer illness.

3. Most people have only heard of smallpox through heartrending accounts of how Queen Elizabeth I miraculously escaped death, despite the disease's killer symptoms and the primitive health measures of Elizabethan England. However, how many of you know about its time in Victorian Britain? In the nineteenth century, smallpox was an insatiable disease, and continued to relapse in epidemical waves even after its previous victims had died or gained immunity to it. To this day, there is still no known cure for smallpox. However the disease was eradicated in the late 1970s via a nationwide vaccination campaign, using a formula originally developed by a country doctor, Edward Jenner in the 1840s.

4. Tuberculosis (TB) was also a major disease throughout Victoria's reign, killing one in four of its sufferers. London had the highest rate of TB admissions (15.3 per 100,000 population), with North Yorkshire and the Humber having the lowest (1.5 per 100,000 population). Among TB's most famous victims were Emily Brontë, who succumbed to the bacterial infection in 1848, and Florence Nightingale in 1910. However, in today's world, TB may be best known as the killer of the famous courtesan, Satine in Moulin Rouge, despite Ewan McGregor's best attempts at singing her back to life. Finally in 1882, Koch identified the rod- shaped bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, that caused the disease.

5. Due to the overwhelming popularity of prostitution in Victorian Britain, venereal diseases have also shaped the landscape of medicine in the nineteenth century. Syphilis was widely spread throughout London via brothels or whorehouses, with their male clients then passing on the disease to their wives and children, via sexual intercourse, or through open wounds. Famous syphilis victims include Napoleon Bonaparte and Franz Schubert, both of whom didn't die directly from the STI, but from the supposed "cures" of the time, such as poisonous mercury or arsenic doses.


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