The Weird World of Victorian Medicine
The Weird World of Victorian Medicine
The Victorian era was a time of rapid progress and new advances. The world was getting smaller and life was getting faster. For a country full of people used to noodling downstairs at elevenish for a relaxed breakfast of kippers and marmalade on toast, followed by croquet and cucumber sandwiches on the lawn and a spot of how’s-your-father with the parlour maid before retiring, it was a rude shock to the system.
The new, frenetic pace of their lives made the British so neurotic that a whole host of new disorders sprang up, and along with them various weird, wonderful and frankly disturbing ways of treating these disorders.
When travel by train first became widespread, a number of experts suggested that travelling at speeds of over 40mph would be fatal, since passengers would suffocate. Queen Victoria was notoriously nervous of rail travel and would not allow the Royal train to travel faster than 20mph. In fact, the fastest the Queen ever traveled was after her death, when her coffin was being transported by train, and the driver presumably having lingered over his kippers, things were running the tiniest bit late.
Train accidents were terrifyingly common, and a new condition emerged – Railway Spine – in which victims suffered from anything from pain in the spine (because dash it all, a chap says what he means, doncherknow) to more nebulous symptoms like anxiety, irritability, poor memory and trouble sleeping. A rash of lawsuits against the railway companies resulted, though in 1905 Sigmund Freud concluded that the cause of the disorder was repressed sexual excitement. Because, of course it was.
And speaking of sexual repression, (that most British of qualities, after vicious politeness and a voracious appetite for tea) a common medical problem in Victorian England was hysteria. A disorder of women, treatments included hysterectomies and clitoridectomies, and since a diagnosis could be made on the basis of anything from nymphomania to frigidity, this was a Very Bad Thing. Victorian ladies had to want the exact right amount of sex. A much more palatable treatment came in the form of “pelvic massage”, a technique introduced by physician Mortimer Granville, allegedly because he objected to the mutilation of helpless lunatics, though one suspects that the opportunity to get his fingers into ladies’ knickers in the pursuit of science may have had something to do with it. The treatment involved stimulating the genitals until the patient achieved “hysterical paroxysm”.
Fine...I'll be gentle.
The guy also invented the mechanical vibrator as a “labour-saving device”, so really we have a lot for which to thank him. And next time your doctor prescribes a good hard shag, remember that he’s building on an established medical foundation.
Hysteria wasn’t the only thing that could go wrong with women’s fragile, unpredictable brains. Although most people probably think of Anorexia and Bulimia as modern disorders, they were alive and well in Victorian Britain. "Fasting Girls" were usually teenagers, and claimed to be able to survive without eating. Usually these girls characterised themselves as being blessed with this skill by being particularly virtuous or holy. "No pie" seems like a poor reward for a life of piety, and the results would often be tragic. In 1869, a Fasting Girl named Sarah Jacobs, who claimed to have eaten nothing since the age of twelve, was placed under medical supervision. Unfortunately, this meant that she could no longer secretly consume the very small amounts of food with which she’d been sustaining herself. She soon showed signs of starvation, but her parents insisted that her symptoms had nothing to do with a lack of food, and sadly she died within a matter of weeks. Her parents were convicted of manslaughter. It's a good thing stupid shit like that never happens, these days.
Of course, a desire to lose weight was not always the result of mental illness. Fortunately for the fashionably minded who wanted their waists to be tiny, the Victorians could take anything, including a balanced diet, and make it a hundred percent bug-fuck insane. What does one do if one is a style-conscious society lady who’s found that displacing your organs with whalebone torture devices just doesn't make you look trim enough? Especially if your hobby is stuffing your face with cake? Why, you simply wash that cake down with a tasty dose of tapeworm! Advertisements for the Tapeworm Diet began to appear in newspapers in the 1890s, and since I've not yet sufficiently destroyed your desire to eat anything ever again, the diet is still available today.
So your paramour limps in, crippled by Railway Spine, hysterical, half-starved and full of worms. No wonder the Victorians were known for never, ever having sex. But a British chappy has to do his duty, by George.
By George...we mean it. Right next to him. He likes to watch.
There must be a next generation to repress and generally turn into a burbling neurotic mess. That was where electric belts came in. They were touted as a cure for “sluggish circulation”, “functional maladies” and “general debility of the system”, which is the British way of saying that if your little soldier isn't standing to attention, a damn good electric shock will get the juices flowing. If you’re thinking that even the Victorians wouldn't be insane enough to electrocute their junk and those delicate euphemisms must be referring to something else, allow me to inform you that the device came with a penis attachment. You know what? As a group, let’s decide that in case of genital malfunction, we’ll go with that whole hysterical paroxysm thing.
Strangely enough, for the British, they are still all the rage.
Read OrangeEyeBrows' real-life cracked articles, here. Resistance is stupid.
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