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Tag Archives: Medical History


Origin of the Gout (artist Henry Bunbury 1750-1811), English, 1815 The perceived origins of gout may be tied more to the liquor on the table than to the more localized work of the devil.

I’m excited to share my new discovery of a great research source! (I hope I’m not the last to find out.) The U.S. National Library of Medicine has a truly awesome website offering a ton of databases and a massive library network. Its offerings on the History of Medicine include a collection of 71,000 downloadable images, and through the Medical Heritage Library, maybe one of the best collections of digitized period books on medicine –more than 9,000 books!

Does one of your characters have a medical issue? Or the need to know how to deal with someone else’s medical needs? We all know about laudanum, but how much more do we know about medicine in the Regency? I wish this goldmine had been available when I was researching my early books. Just thinking quickly through my first four stories I recall that my characters had to deal with hypoglycemia, infected wounds, psychological trauma and epilepsy –all (at one level or another) medical issues.

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The Cockpit, Battle of the Nile. London: Edward Orme, June, 1817. A view of sailors receiving medical treatment below decks.

Oh, doesn’t that make you want to run right out and read those? LOL!! Obviously, these aren’t the main focus of any of the stories –they are love stories, after all. But health and medical needs are part of everyday life, so if we want a realistic world for our characters to live in, I think we shouldn’t ignore these. Do you agree? Or do you think it ruins the fantasy?

As with any great resource, you have to be careful not to get sidetracked (or you can give in and have fun roaming)…I followed a link to the Medical Heritage Library ( ) and discovered they had some fascinating coloring pages to offer, and a “medical pop-up book” from the 17th century…with a video about how they handled digitizing this! So many treasures, so little time… The MHL, “a digital curation collaborative among some of the world’s leading medical libraries, promotes free and open access to quality historical resources in medicine” and as said above, has an amazing collection of fully accessible digitized material.

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The databases you can find at the NLM site include Toxnet, which can help you find info on poisons, among other useful things, and MeSH (which stands for Medical Subject Headings) where you can learn about medical terminology. And another thing they have is a worldwide map directory of where to find History of Medicine collections. Each spot on the map links to specific libraries and includes a description of their holdings. Is there one near you?

Just to give you a glimpse of the NLM site:

Digital Collections is a free online archive of selected book, serial, and film resources. All the content in Digital Collections is in the public domain and freely available worldwide.

Rare Books & Journals: Books Published before 1914: The historical book collection includes related areas of social, economic, and intellectual history. It includes over 580 incunabula (books printed before 1501), some 57,000 16th-18th century books, and 95,000 items published between 1801 and 1913, from all over the world, in many languages. Among works of popular and ephemeral interest are home health guides, pharmaceutical almanacs, patent medicine catalogs, medical equipment catalogs, personal narratives, first-hand accounts, broadsides, pharmacopoeias, illustrated herbals, and botanical name indexes (materia medica). Medical history landmarks in the collection include Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (1543), William Harvey’s Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis (1628), William Withering’s An Account of the Foxglove (1785), and Edward Jenner’s An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae (1798), as well as comprehensive holdings of the works of major medical figures such as Hippocrates, Galen, Paracelsus, Boerhaave, and Osler.

Archives & Manuscripts: Searchable database of material, most dating from the 17th century to the present (which they call “modern”).

Images from the History of Medicine (IHM): A searchable database of images from IHM including fine art, photographs, engravings, and posters that “illustrate the social and historical aspects of medicine dating from the 15th to 21st century.” (granted many of them are portraits, but I’ve included with this post a couple of the Regency images I found)


The Physicians Friend [Charles Williams, 1797-1830, artist] England, c. 1815. In a kitchen, a fat physician grasps the hand of the cook and compliments him on his culinary abilities, which increase the frequency of the physician’s visits.

Of course, if the material you want hasn’t been digitized, you still have three recourses: 1) go to Washington DC and visit the NLM in person, or 2) see if the material is available via inter-library loan, or 3) check if the material is available at one of the History of Medicine collection locations near you (see above). The Library does not lend historical material in its original format; however, they do lend copies of journal articles, copies of selected manuscripts, books on microfilm (when available), and copies of films and videos. The Library’s interlibrary loan services are available only to libraries, not to individuals. Individuals who want to borrow NLM material should make a request through a local library.

So, what do you think? Should medical issues be part of the Regency world we recreate? How much research would you do to make sure you had an accurate portrayal of the way such things would be handled? Did you already know about the NLM?

If this were Regency times, I wouldn’t be putting my thoughts into writing today. Given the medical misfortunes I’ve suffered recently, I would be dead. Sobering, right? Let me tell you, right now my appreciation for a certain Regency doctor and his contributions to modern medicine is boundless. I’ll get to the part where Princess Charlotte fits in shortly. Bear with me!

Diane’s March 5th post about the Brontes and the ways disease decimated their family was a vivid reminder of how far modern medicine has come in the understanding, prevention and treatment of diseases. I am thanking God and the stars right now for the similar advancement in medical tools and techniques, and understanding of the human body. In particular (and also most appropriately in this year of 2018), I am grateful for Dr. James Blundell, who was so horrified by the frequent deaths of women from bleeding after childbirth that he managed to re-open the medical world to studying the possibilities of blood transfusions.

To really understand what he accomplished we need to briefly look back further. You see, medical researchers in the mid-1600’s had tried to investigate and study the idea of transferring blood to help save lives. Unfortunately, most of their results had been pretty disastrous. This led authorities in France (the Chamber of Deputies), England (the Royal Society of London), and even the Pope (Papal Edict of 1678) to formally prohibit any further experimentation or study on the transfusion of blood.

Fast forward 150 years, and enter our hero, Dr Blundell. Born in 1790, he became a prominent London obstetrician, studying under Sir Astley Cooper, known for his achievements in vascular surgery, and also under his uncle, Dr. John Haighton, focusing on midwifery and physiology. He attended the University of Edinburgh, obtaining his medical degree in 1813. He returned to London to begin his medical practice and was recognized as a lecturer with his uncle on the topics of physiology (1816) and midwifery (1817) at the combined schools of St. Thomas’ and Guy’s Hospital in London.

Post-partum hemorrhage was a common cause of death for women after childbirth and the lack of remedy for it horrified the young obstetrician, sources say. I believe it is no coincidence that Dr Blundell was moved to break the 150-year-old taboo on studying blood transfusion after such a much-loved and very public figure as Princess Charlotte died from post-partum hemorrhaging in November of 1817 while her physicians stood by helplessly.

With his star on the rise, at the age of 27, Blundell had perhaps both more to lose and more potential for success than more established physicians of the period. All in the following year, he performed the first known successful blood transfusion, using a husband as donor for his wife, published an important paper titled “Experiments on the Transfusion of Blood by the Syringe” and was named a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians.

Blundell modestly claimed he investigated the transfusion of blood “with a view of keeping this valuable option before the profession in the hope of adding something to the body of facts.” He performed 10 blood transfusions between 1825 and 1830, with a 50% success rate.

Throughout the Regency period and beyond, Dr Blundell continued to have a major impact on the field of medicine, and not just in the area of blood transfusions. Frustrated by the limited tools he had to work with, he devised new tools and methods, and his research also opened up new areas of study, particularly that of abdominal surgery. He became the sole lecturer on his topics at St. Thomas’ and Guy’s upon his uncle’s death in 1823. His lectures were collected and published in several versions during the 1830’s, culminating with “The Principles and Practices of Obstetricy as at Present Taught by Dr. James Blundell” (1834).

Two years later, however, the doctor had an “irreconcilable” dispute with the administration at Guy’s Hospital and retired from teaching at the age of 46. He did continue his private practice, and was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1838.

The biography of Blundell by Stacy L. Adams at the website has this to say about Blundell’s later life: “Often referred to as eccentric, in his later years Blundell had both interesting and unusual sleeping patterns. He rose midday and saw patients in his home in the afternoon hours. After dining he began a round of house calls as late as 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. He carried many books with him, which he read between calls by the interior light affixed to his carriage. Blundell retired in 1847 and moved to a large house in Piccadilly, London, where he lived in relative anonymity. He died on Jan. 15, 1878.”

Would Dr. James Blundell have been inspired and horrified enough to pursue his “forbidden” research in 1818 without the public tragedy of Princess Charlotte’s death? Who can say? I am eternally grateful that he did. When a “simple” surgical procedure I had at the beginning of March went horribly awry, I was able to have five blood transfusions over about as many days until my doctors were finally able to stop my internal bleeding. Without Blundell’s discoveries about many aspects of transfusion (which I’ve not gone into here), doctors who came after him would not have made the discoveries they did, including the typing of blood (c. 1900) or the importance of matching donor/patient blood types, or even the development of blood banks. Do you think Dr. Blundell could ever have imagined his work leading to anything like those?

I do want to give a shout out to all the people who donate blood to blood banks around the country. Are you a blood donor? What do you think about that? You never know when the life you save could be that of someone you know. Someone’s gift of blood saved me –along with all these other historical matters! If you are healthy and able to give blood, I hope each of you reading this post will consider donating the next time a blood drive happens in your area. Think of poor tragic Princess Charlotte and heroic Dr. James Blundell, forging ahead where no one dared to go for 150 years before him. Thank you!

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