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Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Medical practices, as shown in Jane Austen's Letters

Medicine Chest
During Jane Austen's lifetime, the sick suffered from the ignorance of their physicians. In Jane's letters, there are interesting references to contemporary medical practices, notably the frequent bleeding of patients. Blood-letting was believed to release bad 'humours'. Jane uncritically reported how, when she was staying with her brother Henry during his alarming illness in 1815, his physician Charles Haden 'took twenty ounces of Blood from Henry last night – & nearly as much more this morng – & expects to have to bleed him again tomorrow ... Henry is an excellent Patient, lies quietly in bed & is ready to swallow anything. He lives upon Medicine, Tea & Barley water' (Letter 121).


Dentistry, without anaesthetic, was excruciating. Jane resisted it. Those with gout were advised to exist on bread, water and meat. Calomel was taken as a stomach medicine: made of mercurious chloride, it is poisonous. During his serious illness, brother Henry's cure was no doubt delayed by calomel and the blood-letting. On another occasion, Jane herself prescribed (for brother Henry) rhubarb medicine with plenty of port and water when he had a cold and an unsettled stomach.