Health, Medicine, and Society in Victorian England
by Mary Wilson Carpenter
November 2009, 214pp, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
1 volume, Praeger

Hardcover: 978-0-275-98952-1
$55, £43, 48€, A76
eBook Available: 978-0-313-06542-2
Please contact your preferred eBook vendor for pricing.

In 1800, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, syphilis, and smallpox were the primary causes of illness and death, but no one knew what caused them—they were generally believed to be inherited or to be the result of bad air. By 1905, the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, cholera, and syphilis had been identified, and an effective method of preventing smallpox, had dramatically cut the number of cases. Science had begun to transform medicine.

This work offers a social and cultural history of Victorian medicine 'from below,' as experienced by ordinary practitioners and patients, often described in their own words.

Health, Medicine, and Society in Victorian England is a human story of medicine in 19th-century England. It’s a story of how a diverse and competitive assortment of apothecary apprentices, surgeons who learned their trade by doing, and physicians schooled in ancient Greek medicine but lacking in any actual experience with patients, was gradually formed into a medical profession with uniform standards of education and qualification. It’s a story of how medical men struggled with “new” diseases such as cholera and “old” ones known for centuries, such as tuberculosis, syphilis, and smallpox, largely in the absence of effective drugs or treatments, and so were often reduced to standing helplessly by as their patients died. It’s a story of how surgeons, empowered first by anesthesia and later by antiseptic technique, vastly expanded the field of surgery—sometimes with major benefits for patients, but sometimes with disastrous results.

Above all, it’s a story of how gender and class ideology dominated both practitioners and patients. Women were stridently excluded from medical education and practice of any kind until the end of the century, but were hailed into the new field of nursing, which was felt to be “natural” to the gentler sex. Only the poor were admitted to hospitals until the last decades of the century, and while they often received compassionate care, they were also treated as “cases” of disease and experimented upon with freedom. Yet because medical knowledge was growing by leaps and bounds, Victorians were fascinated with this new field and wrote novels, poetry, essays, letters, and diaries, which illuminate their experience of health and disease for us. Newly developed techniques of photography, as well as improved print illustrations, help us to picture this fascinating world. This vivid history of Victorian medicine is enriched with many literary examples and visual images drawn from the period.


  • Offers a chronology of medical history in Victorian England
  • Includes illustrations in every chapter, such as images from 19th-century medical textbooks, magazine cartoons, portraits, and paintings
Mary Wilson Carpenter is professor emerita of the Department of English at Queen's University in Kingston, ON. Carpenter's published works include George Eliot and the Landscape of Time: Narrative Form and Protestant Apocalyptic History and Imperial Bibles, Domestic Bodies: Women, Sexuality, and Religion in the Victorian Market.


"A book that is a pleasure to read and that provides a well-informed, wide-ranging, and intelligent social history of medicine for the general or student reader. . . . An elegant and able introduction to the ways in which several significant diseases, blindness and deafness, the experience of illness, and the medical profession writ large operated in, affected, and were shaped by the culture and politics of the nineteenth-century British Empire. Like the best of such books, it also provides a useful starting point for the Victorianist seeking information about particular health issues—or pubic health in general."—Victorian Review, April 1, 2013

"In a volume in a series designed to give a more accurate picture of life in the Victorian era, Carpenter (emeritus, English, Queen's U., Kingston, Ontario, Canada) presents a sociocultural history of evolving 19th century medicine in the UK interwoven with period medical and literary writing. Among the themes discussed are attitudes and practices toward: women as patients; tuberculosis, venereal, and other diseases; education of the handicapped (deaf and dumb, blind); and especially timely, vaccination. The book includes a public health chronology, glossary, and period medical illustrations."—SciTech Book News, March 1, 2010

"... a welcome addition to a field not abundantly stocked with short, relatively inexpensive texts and will be useful for undergraduates beginning their study of the subject. It is elegantly written, and Carpenter’s use of literary sources broadens the appeal of the subject to students in other disciplines approaching the history of medicine for the first time."—Social History of Medicine, March 28, 2011
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