Soane’s Life & Times 1812-13; Part X: In Sickness & in Health
2013 has been the 200th anniversary since Sir John Soane and his family took up residence at No.13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Throughout the year this blog series has been celebrating this important milestone by exploring both Soane’s life during 1812-13, and the political, economic and social change seen in Britain and abroad. As this anniversary year concludes, we bring the blog to a close with this final post examining heatlth care at the start of the 19th Century and the health issues that affected our dear Soane himself.
To read parts I-IX of this series please click here
In Sickness & in Health
The squalid living conditions of much of the population bred epidemics and disease. Poverty, hunger, dirt and lack of sanitation all contributed. Child mortality rates were high. Smallpox, typhus (often called fever), and tuberculosis (known as consumption) were prevalent, along with cholera, until contaminated water was identified as its source. Tuberculosis is thought to have accounted for a third of all deaths in the early 1800s. Lethal whooping cough epidemics had recurred since 1700 at roughly five-yearly intervals, including 1812. Modern research links them to malnutrition caused by oscillations in wheat prices.
Hospitals were charitable institutions and the State did little, apart from supporting workhouse infirmaries for the destitute. Treatments were primitive, relying on herbal remedies, purges, bleeding, a change of air or taking the waters. Surgery was dangerous. In some hospitals around 80% of patients died due to unsterile conditions, post-operative shock, loss of blood, or pain — since there were no anaesthetics. By degrees hospitals developed an educational and scientific role, and were among the main drivers in advancing medical science. Notable discoveries were a vaccine for smallpox; and digitalis, a heart stimulant derived from foxgloves. In May 1812 Dr Thornton, Physician to the St Mary-le-Bone General Dispensary, also reported success using digitalis for scarlet fever.
Dr Edward Jenner, a Gloucestershire doctor, is credited with the discovery in 1796 that vaccination with cowpox provided protection against smallpox, after which vaccination with cowpox was promoted. By 1812 an estimated two thirds of all children born in London were being vaccinated. However, there was opposition, particularly from the poor. Despite compulsory vaccination promulgated by an Act of Parliament, smallpox recurred. Dickens highlighted its consequences in Bleak House where the heroine, Esther Summerson, was disfigured by it.
The Cow-Pock-or-the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! By James Gillray, 1802, hand-coloured etching (Courtesy of the British Museum)
Sir Humphry Davy discovered the anaesthetic properties of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), in about 1800. Davy, who was not a physician, was the first to document its analgesic effects and potential for relieving pain in surgery; but it was not used until 40 years later — by American dentists.
The Greatest Hero of Modern Times
The Soanes did not escape the health hazards of the period. Two sons died in infancy; one in 1788, another (the last) of whooping cough in 1791, aged six months. Soane’s eldest son John contracted consumption and died in 1823 aged 37. Eliza had gallstones later in life and visited Bath and Cheltenham to take the waters. She died on 22 November 1815 following a ‘spasm’. Soane enjoyed reasonable health and a long life, despite recurring gout and a bowel complaint. After a period of being almost housebound, he had a fistula removed in March 1814. His surgeon, Sir Astley Cooper, wrote in complimentary terms after the operation (done without anaesthetic): ‘You bore Your operation so well that, next to Bonaparte, I consider You as the greatest hero of modern times.’ In old age, Soane suffered from failing eyesight, despite a cataract operation in 1824.
Sir John Soane died at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields on Friday 20 January 1837, aged 83.
Watercolour by George Basevi of 1816 depicting the Soane family tomb in St Giles-in-the-Fields burial ground (now St Pancras Gardens). After the death of his wife Eliza in 1815, Soane made a series of designs for the tomb. Soane and his elder son John are also buried there
This blog has been reproduced from "Soane's Life and Times 1812-1813" by Gisela Gledhill and edited by Philippa Stockley, which can be purchased from our online store or from the Soane Shop. We are grateful to Gisela and Philippa for allowing us to feature their work in this way.