How To Be A Victorian Doctor: The Importance of Portent

For some time the skeptical cardiologist has been seeking information about the practice of medicine and cardiology during the Victorian era.
Why the Victorian era? Because my favorite writer, Charles Dickens, consistently portrays doctors of that era as incompetent.
And, sadly to say, as I have explored what doctors had to offer in the real world of the nineteenth century it was, in point of fact, very little.
From time to time as I gather this information on my medical forebears I will share it with my gentle readers:
To begin with, however, I present to you one of my favorite examples which is taken  from The Old Curiosity Shop.

“The doctor, who was a red-nosed gentleman with a great bunch of seals dangling below a waistcoat of ribbed black satin, arrived with all speed, and taking his seat by the bedside of poor Nell, drew out his watch, and felt her pulse. Then he looked at her tongue, then he felt her pulse again, and while he did so, he eyed the half-emptied wine-glass as if in profound abstraction.
‘I should give her,’ said the doctor at length, ‘a tea-spoonful, every now and then, of hot brandy and water.’
‘Why, that’s exactly what we’ve done, sir!’ said the delighted landlady.
‘I should also,’ observed the doctor, who had passed the foot-bath on the stairs, ‘I should also,’ said the doctor, in the voice of an oracle, ‘put her feet in hot water, and wrap them up in flannel. I should likewise,’ said the doctor with increased solemnity, ‘give her something light for supper—the wing of a roasted fowl now—’
‘Why, goodness gracious me, sir, it’s cooking at the kitchen fire this instant!’ cried the landlady. And so indeed it was, for the schoolmaster had ordered it to be put down, and it was getting on so well that the doctor might have smelt it if he had tried; perhaps he did.
‘You may then,’ said the doctor, rising gravely, ‘give her a glass of hot mulled port wine, if she likes wine—’
‘And a toast, Sir?’ suggested the landlady. ‘Ay,’ said the doctor, in the tone of a man who makes a dignified concession. ‘And a toast—of bread. But be very particular to make it of bread, if you please, ma’am.’
With which parting injunction, slowly and portentously delivered, the doctor departed, leaving the whole house in admiration of that wisdom which tallied so closely with their own. Everybody said he was a very shrewd doctor indeed, and knew perfectly what people’s constitutions were; which there appears some reason to suppose he did.”

Since reading this I have endeavored to make all my medical pronouncements with solemnity and gravity and as slowly and portentously as possible.
Portentously Yours,
N.B. The Old Curiosity Shop was the fourth novel of Charles Dickens.  The novel was published in installments in the periodical Master Humphrey’s Clock.  The first installment was printed in April of 1840 and the last was printed in February of 1841.


4 thoughts on “How To Be A Victorian Doctor: The Importance of Portent”

  1. A corollary I have noted in work from this period: when in doubt, moralize! From the dangers of overconsumption of French novels, to the risks of ugly offspring occasioned by conception in unattractively-furnished rooms, to the dire consequences of treating a husband’s affection, that “pearl of great price….as lightly and carelessly as if was any bauble of Brummagem” (Napheys, 1878) — for the highly-trained instinct of a Man of Science, no observation should be considered too intrusive, too anecdotal, or too unrelated to the matter at hand. And never fail to attend to “the high literary as well as medical value” of your words, either. It’s the “whole patient” approach, Victorian style. 🙂

    • Elizabeth,
      Great observations. I googled the Brummagem quote (not being familiar with Napheys “The Physical Life of Woman) and to my wonder I now have a copy of the full text of the book on iBooks. the author later informs women of the need to look nice at home (something my wife and I debate on occasion)…“In this country, some women think that anything is good enough to wear at home. They go about in slatternly morning dresses, unkempt hair, and slippers down at heel. ‘Nobody will see me,’ they say ‘but my husband.’ Let them learn a lesson from the wives of the Orient.
      In those countries a married woman never goes abroad except in long sombre robes and thick veil. An English lady visiting the wife of one of the wealthy merchants, found her always in full dress, with toilet as carefully arranged as if she were going to a ball.
      ‘Why!’ exclaimed the visitor, at length, ‘is it possible that you take all this trouble to dress for nobody but your husband?’
      ‘Do, then,’ asked the lady in reply, ‘the wives of Englishmen dress for the sake of pleasing other men?’
      The visitor was mute.

      Excerpt From: George Henry Napheys. “The Physical Life of Woman:.” iBooks.


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