Was eighteenth and nineteenth century medicine in Britain more about social control than curing?

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ecofan74 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a difficult question to answer because there is sufficient evidence for both conclusions.  Also, there is a difference between what doctors saw themselves doing and what they actually tended to do.  In the former case, I would suggest doctors generally looked to cure their patients to whatever extent they could.  In Britain, the practice of medicine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries relied on the techniques and ideas of earlier centuries.  It was not until Louis Pasteur in the nineteenth century that doctors realized germs caused disease.  As such, the medical ideology of the period relied more on preventive medicine than curative.  When doctors deemed surgery necessary, they would take steps after surgery to prevent infection from occuring; however, if the wound became infected, they could only manage the pain, keep the wound as clean as possible, and, in some cases, resort to bleeding as a means of relieving the infection.

On the other side of the coin, the actions of doctors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries actually served more as a means of social control.  Not having the knowledge of the causes of infections and diseases made the likelihood of curing an illness less likely.  With this in mind, many who fell ill or had surgery died as a result.  One of the major contributors to the spread of disease being overcrowding in the population, those deaths relieved some of the crowding in the population.  In addition, the mortality rate from disease and medical procedures also stigmatized the medical profession in this period.  People saw the doctors almost as the "harbingers of death," and because of this they would do whatever they could to avoid seeing doctors.  This stigma contributed perphaps the most to the idea of social control.