Health in Victorian England

As requested in class on Tuesday, we looked at a couple of articles focusing on health in Victorian England. As we know after reading Wuthering Heights, many people were dying off during this time period. In fact, almost all of the characters die within a short time period and at young ages: Mrs. Earnshaw, Mr. Earnshaw, Frances(18), Mr. and Mrs. Linton, Catherine(18), Hindley(27), Isabella(31), Edgar(39), Linton(17), and Heathcliff(37). Along with the rest of the class, we were wondering what caused all of these individuals to die so early in life. In an article we found called “Health and Hygiene in the Nineteenth Century” containing passages from Bruce Haley’s book called The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture, we found that there were three waves of contagious diseases circulating during the Victorian Era. The first epidemic was from 1831-1833 and was initiated by Cholera, a disease caused by eating food or water contaminated with bacteria which can lead to dehydration and death. It was referred to as “monstrous” because it was very frightening and affected so many people. Actually, it mainly affected the poorer neighborhoods because they were less likely to have sanitary food and water and they had drainage problems that flooded towns and lead to mold and fungi growth. As seen in “Grounding Miasma, or Anticipating the Germ Theory of Disease in Victorian Cholera Satire” by Wietske Smeele, people were skeptical of where the illness derived from. People believed in the miasma theory which is that illness is caused by foul air. A physician by the name of John Snow would be a pioneer in tracing the cause of cholera to contaminated water. The second epidemic from 1836-1842 was known as Typhus which was spread by lice, ticks, mites, and fleas during wars and famines. It had a high mortality rate and was just as rampant as smallpox. Finally, the last wave of epidemic was from 1842-1846. During this time frame, the railroads were starting to expand because of increased wage levels and better standard living. As a result, workers were moving into the cities and diseases often came along with them. The most common was Typhoid, which is basically Salmonella. As a result of this massive wave of illness, there was a myth that spread saying that one disease brought on another. As Jan Marsh states in “Health and Medicine in the 19th Century”, treatments for diseases in the early Victorian era often relied on coastal air, bleeding, leaching, laxatives and prayer. The popular belief was that in order to rid the body of a disease, the body had to be purified, and these were means of doing so. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that doctors and scientists began recognizing the legitimate public health issues that factored into these diseases, and learned how to begin to treat them effectively. This was a turning point, and Europe began to see new scientific research and medical technological developments and the medical industry began growing faster than ever before. However, according to The Registrar General, life expectancy during the Victorian Era ranged from 15-45. This can be compared to the ages of the characters from Wuthering Heights and we can infer that the deaths of these individuals were most likely caused by one of the three aforementioned epidemics.

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