This history of western medicine focuses on British life in the eighteenth century. Williams begins his treatise by wondering if "we realize sufficiently what we have escaped by being alive in the twentieth, not the eighteenth, century." He then catalogues in the subsequent 12 chapters the agonies not only of illness but also of medical treatment in the 1700’s.

Topics are wide-ranging and include blood-letting, parturition, infant malnutrition, rampant infectious diseases, maltreatment of the insane, surgery prior to anesthesia, water therapy, and military medicine. Primary source quotations interspersed in the narrative add to the drama. For example, the deposition of a widower (his wife died while pregnant) is quoted: " . . . Being taken ill of a paine in her right side under her short ribb together with a great difficulty of breathing having but 14 weeks to go with Child Mr Hugh Chamberlen Senr was sent for to take care of her, who thereupon gave her in the space of nine days four vomitts, four purges, and caused her to be bled three times to the quantity of eight ounces each time: Then gave her something to raise a spitting after which swellings and Ulcers in her mouth followed . . . . " (p. 31)

A few medical advances at the close of the century are also described, notably the smallpox vaccine developed by Jenner and the administration of First Aid to wounded soldiers at the frontlines (developed by Larrey). The text is accompanied by black and white illustrations, such as an inside view of Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital) by William Hogarth (A Rake’s Progress, plate VIII).


With the use of a lively writing style and liberal use of primary source quotations, Williams’s history is engaging and easy to read. The book is designed for the lay reader with an interest in the topic--its lack of citations and minimal index would make it a frustrating choice for study by medical historians.

Williams is Anglocentric, not only in focus, but also in opinion--he pokes fun at the French, and in one particularly egregious sentence, refers to "unfortunate patients . . . scalped by Red Indians." (p. 202) This book precedes its companion volume The Age of Miracles: Medicine and Surgery in the Nineteenth Century (see this database), which covers medicine in the nineteenth century.


First published: 1986


Academy Chicago

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