Five quick facts about Victorian quacks

BBC Two’s gruesome new comedy about Victorian doctors is sure to leave you feeling squeamish, but real-life 19th century surgery will have you squirming.

15th August 2017
Five quick facts about Victorian quacks © BBC

Would you trust this motley bunch to treat you? © BBC

You wouldn’t want to be treated by this lot. Inspired by real-life Victorian doctors, Quacks is a new six-part comedy set in the medical milieu of 1840s London. Created by James Wood, Quacks stars Rory Kinnear as a showman surgeon, Mathew Baynton as a fledgling psychiatrist, Tom Basden as a hedonistic dentist, and Lydia Leonard as a social campaigner who’s fighting against the medical patriarchy. Ross MacFarlane, one of the show’s advisors at the Wellcome Collection, reveals some of the stranger-than-fiction stories that inspired the series…

Human guinea pigs

Doctors in the 1840s were looking for new ways to numb pain. Chloroform was one of the candidate anaesthetics, and in 1847, Scottish physician James Young Simpson and two friends tried it out after a dinner party. The three of them were found passed out – but happily, still alive – on Simpson’s drawing room floor the next morning.

Something for the pain?

Potent drugs were easy to get hold of in the 1840s. Laudanum, a tincture of opium that’s today rated as a Class A substance, could be bought over the counter for anything from childbirth to a mild cough, while diluted versions were even available for children. Thank goodness for Calpol…

No scrubs

Forget about squeaky-clean surgical clothing: Victorian doctors worked in their finest garb. Think tight dress shirts, cravats and some extravagant hairstyles. They’d at least take their jacket off, though. Scrubs didn’t come along until the following century, as scientists became increasingly aware of the link between germs and disease.

Look into my eyes

John Elliotson, professor of medicine at University College Hospital, used ‘mesmerism’ as a form of pain relief. The technique, similar to hypnotism, was decried by many other doctors, notably in an 1842 article accusing him of placing mesmerised female patients in “curious postures”.

And for my next trick…

Operations during Victorian times were frequently ‘performed’ in front of a crowd, with surgeons attempting to outdo each other in speed and showmanship. One surgeon, Robert Liston, could reportedly amputate a leg in 2.5 minutes, though he was so enthusiastic that he once lopped off the patient’s testicles, too.

Quacks runs for six weeks on BBC Two from Tues 15 August 

 


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