A group of doctors in the eighteenth century

18th Century Medicine: Secret Healthcare Rituals & Untold Stories

In the 18th century, doctors were still practicing many of the same techniques that their predecessors had used for centuries. However, during this time period, some significant medical advances were made.

In this article, we will take a look at some of the most interesting and unknown aspects of 18th-century medicine. We will also explore how this period marked a shift in thinking about healthcare and laid the groundwork for further medical discoveries in the 19th century.

Artwork of Doctors Created With DALL-E

18th Century Medicine: Overview

During the 18th century, there was a great deal of progress made in the medical field. This was due in part to the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that emphasized reason and individualism.

Enlightenment Age Medicine: Fruit of Knowledge

One of the most important figures during this time was Scottish physician James Lind. In 1747, Lind conducted one of the first clinical trials in history, testing different treatments for scurvy. His work helped to prove that citrus fruits could prevent and cure this disease.

Another significant event during this period was the founding of The Royal Humane Society in London in 1774. This organization worked to promote methods of resuscitation, such as CPR and mouth-to-mouth breathing. William Hawes and Thomas Cogan were attributed to being the founders of this British organization.

In addition to these advances, many new medical schools were established in the 18th century. This helped to train more doctors and create a better-educated workforce.

One of the most famous medical schools from this period is the University of Edinburgh Medical School, which was founded in 1726. A notable American institution, (The University of Pennsylvania) School of Medicine was also founded in this century in 1765.

Finally, the 18th century saw the development of several new medical treatments and technologies. One example is vaccinations. The first vaccine was developed by English physician Edward Jenner in 1796. This vaccine was used to protect people from smallpox, a deadly disease that had previously killed millions of people around the world.

Other notable inventions shortly after this period include the stethoscope (invented by French physician René Laennec in 1816) and anesthesia (first used in an operation by American dentist William Thomas Green Morton in 1846).

While there were many advances made during the Enlightenment, it was also a time when some controversial practices were still being used. For example, bloodletting was a common treatment

18th Century Doctors: Knowledge & Theory

In the 18th century, healthcare was still largely based on superstition and folk remedies. However, there were starting to be some changes in thinking about medicine.

During this time, many people still believed in the theory of humorism. This was an ancient Greek belief that stated that there were four humors in the body (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) and that illness was caused by an imbalance of these.

A group of eighteenth century scientists discussing humorism

While this theory was largely debunked by the end of the 18th century, it still influenced many medical practices of the time. For example, bloodletting was often used as a treatment for various conditions because it was thought to help balance the humors.

Another theory that was popular during this period was vitalism. This stated that there was a life force or spirit that animated all living things. This theory helped to explain why some treatments, such as acupuncture, were thought to be effective even though there was no scientific evidence to support this claim.

Despite these theories, there were also some doctors during this period who were starting to think more scientifically about medicine. One of the most important figures in this movement was Scottish physician James Lind.

Lind is best known for conducting one of the first clinical trials in history. In 1747, he tested different treatments for scurvy on a group of sailors. As mentioned earlier, his work helped to prove that citrus fruits could prevent and cure this disease.

A Painting of The Plague of Scurvy

This was a significant finding because it showed that diseases could be treated with specific medications (more specifically, nutrition) rather than just by trying to balance the humors or using other folk remedies.

Prior discoveries made by physicians including English doctor Thomas Sydenham also helped to move medicine in a more scientific direction. Sydenham is considered to be the father of clinical medicine for his work on diagnosing and treating diseases.

Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, also made important contributions to the field of medicine in the 18th century. He is best known for developing the concept of homeopathy, which is a system of medicine that uses very small doses of substances that cause symptoms similar to those of the disease being treated.

Healthcare Practitioners Studying Homeopathy

While homeopathy is not supported by scientific evidence, it was (and still is) popular in many parts of the world. In fact, one of Hahnemann’s followers, Constantine Hering, helped to spread homeopathy to the United States in the early 19th century.

As a result of these and other advances, the 18th century is often considered to be the beginning of modern medicine. However, despite the advances made during this period, it would still be several centuries before medicine became truly science-based.

The 18th century was an important time in the history of medicine as it laid the foundation for many of the discoveries that would later be made.

18th Century Healthcare: Standard Procedure

As mentioned earlier, bloodletting was a common medical procedure during the 18th century. This involved opening a vein and draining off some of the patient’s blood.

While this might sound like a dangerous and barbaric treatment, it was actually considered to be quite effective for many conditions at the time. In fact, it wasn’t until the 19th century that doctors began to question the efficacy of bloodletting.

Other common medical treatments during the 18th century included purging, cupping, and leeching. Purging involved taking medication to induce vomiting or diarrhea to rid the body of toxins.

Cupping was a popular treatment for respiratory illnesses. This involved placing heated cups on the skin, which would cause the patient to sweat and supposedly help them to breathe easier. In modern times, similar treatments are used for colds and congestion.

Leeching was another common medical treatment during the 18th century. This involved attaching leeches to the skin to draw out blood. Like bloodletting, leeching was thought to be an effective way to rid the body of toxins and illness.

While some doctors used leeches to remove blood from the patient’s body, others used them to transfuse blood into the patient. This was done by attaching leeches to a healthy person and allowing them to bite the patient. The leeches would then transfer the healthy blood into the patient’s body.

While these medical treatments might seem strange to us today, they were actually quite common during the 18th century. Doctors of the time thought that these treatments were effective and often used them to treat a variety of conditions.

Let’s explore some more ways that physicians practiced medicine in the 18th century. Remember that the understanding of human anatomy was still in its infancy, so many of the treatments used at this time were based on theories that would later be proven to be inaccurate.

18th Century Medical Practices

Throughout this century, many problems arose. Whether it be war, smallpox, yellow fever, or any other number of epidemics, people were dropping like flies. To combat these issues, new medical practices had to be put into place.

Disease Treatment: When it came to infections, 18th-century doctors had some effective treatments. One popular method was called “inoculation.” This involved taking a small amount of the disease and injecting it into the patient. This would help them build up immunity to the disease.

However, the problem with this theory is that it only worked for some diseases. For example, it was effective in treating smallpox but not typhoid fever. Inoculation was also a risky procedure. Sometimes, the patient would die from the disease after being inoculated.

Another term for inoculation is “variolation.” This was a more dangerous method that involved taking pus from a smallpox sore and rubbing it into an open wound on the patient’s arm. The patient would then develop a mild case of smallpox. This method was often used on people who had never had smallpox before.

One of the most famous variolation cases was that of George Washington. In 1777, Washington’s troops were suffering from a smallpox epidemic. However, there was no smallpox vaccine available at the time. Instead, a barbaric version of variolation was used.

A doctor took pus from smallpox sore and rubbed it into an open wound on the arm of a healthy person. This person would then go on to infect Washington’s troops with smallpox. As a result, many of the troops died from the disease.

The search for a solution was on the right path but death among soldiers was common as science was not quite there yet. It would be another two decades before a smallpox vaccine was developed. Thanks to Edward Jenner in 1796, the search for an answer for this practice was put to an end.

Artwork of Doctors Performing Inoculation

Pain Management: Physician knowledge when it came to pain management was very limited in the 18th century. In fact, doctors didn’t even know that pain was caused by nerve impulses. They thought that pain was caused by an imbalance of the four humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood.

To help patients manage their pain, doctors would often prescribe opiates like laudanum. Laudanum is an alcoholic tincture made from opium and other herbs. It was a popular pain reliever and was used for a variety of other ailments like diarrhea, anxiety, and even insomnia.

While laudanum was an effective pain reliever, it was also highly addictive. In fact, many people became addicted to laudanum and other opiates during the 18th century. This led to a growing problem of addiction that would continue into the 19th century.

Despite the problems with addiction, opiates continued to be used for pain relief throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Opium addiction is still prominent in modern times, but there are now many different options for pain management that are much safer and less addictive.

Child Birth: Women have been giving birth for centuries, but the 18th century was a time of change when it came to childbirth. Prior to the 18th century, most women gave birth at home with the help of a midwife.

However, by the end of the 1700s, more and more women were starting to give birth in hospitals. This was due to several factors, including the rise of the middle class, who could afford to pay for hospital care, and the increase in medical knowledge during the Enlightenment. Childbirth was becoming more and more medicalized.

While there are many benefits to giving birth in a hospital, including access to pain relief and medical interventions if necessary, there are also some drawbacks. For example, hospital births can be more expensive than home births, and they can also be more stressful and traumatic for both the mother and the child.

Bleeding: Bloodletting was popular in the 18th century as a way to rid the body of “bad blood”. However, when it came to too much bleeding, it could actually be fatal.

To stop bleeding, 18th-century physicians would use a tourniquet which was a device that could be tightened or loosened to stop the flow of blood. John Louis Petit, a Paris surgeon, was responsible for upgrading the tourniquet to apply pressure to the main artery in 1718. This method was then used to save the lives of many soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars in the next century.

Surgery: When it came to surgery, surgeons in the 18th century were often more like butchers than healers. The lack of knowledge and understanding about human anatomy meant that many surgical procedures were incredibly dangerous and often deadly. The available tools were also crude and not very effective. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that surgeons began to gain a better understanding of human anatomy and develop more effective surgical techniques and tools.

Despite the risks, many people in the 18th century underwent surgery for a variety of reasons. For example, surgeons would often attempt to remove tumors and other growths from the body. They also commonly performed amputations, usually as a last resort to save the patient’s life.

One of the most significant surgical advances of the eighteenth century was the development of anesthesia. This made surgery much safer for both patients and surgeons. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that anesthesia became widely used in surgical procedures.

Doctors in the 1700s: Untold Stories & Secret Healthcare Rituals

The eighteenth century was a time of great advances in medicine. physicians were able to learn more about the human body and how to treat diseases. They also developed new medical treatments and invented new medical devices.

However, not all medical practices were based on science. Some doctors believed in using magic and superstition to treat their patients. Here are some stories about 18th-century medicine:

In the early 1700s, many people believed that diseases were caused by evil spirits. Doctors tried to treat these diseases by using exorcism. Exorcism is a ritual where a priest tries to remove evil spirits from a person’s body. This was often done by chanting and waving around a cross.

Some doctors also believed in using charms and amulets to protect their patients from diseases. These charms were often made of plants or animals that were thought to have magical powers.

Apothecary shops were also common in the eighteenth century. These shops sold herbs, spices, and other ingredients that were used to make medicines. Many of these ingredients were thought to have magical powers. Although some schools of thought criticize herbal medicine, many modern doctors believe that some herbs do have medicinal properties.

Although throughout history there has been a war between schools of thought when it comes to medicine, there is one phenomenon that both physicians and alternative doctors can agree on. The placebo effect.

Discovery of the Placebo Effect: The power to cure medical conditions with the mind may seem more like fantasy than reality.

However, in 1977, John Haygarth (an English physician) discovered the placebo effect. The placebo effect is when patients are given fake medication (such as sugar pills) and told that it will help their condition. Surprisingly, in many cases, the patients do get better.

The placebo effect has been studied extensively and it is now accepted by both mainstream and alternative medicine. The mechanism behind the placebo effect is still not fully understood.

As this understanding developed, it is clear that the mind has a powerful influence over the body. History has proven time and time again that the power of belief can be just as strong as any medication.

Although there have been many scientific documents published about this and many physicians have written about it in their medical journals, the topic of the placebo effect is still considered taboo in many medical circles.

As a reader, it’s important to know that there are many stories of health being restored through thought alone. However as a disclaimer, always consult your physician before making any decisions about your health.

18th Century Medical Discoveries

As mentioned earlier, the 18th century was a time of great advances in medicine. In addition to the discovery of the placebo effect, many new medical treatments and devices were invented.

Scurvy was a common disease in the 18th century. It was caused by a lack of vitamin C and it often resulted in death. In 1747, James Lind, a Scottish physician, conducted a study that showed that eating citrus fruits could prevent scurvy. This was a major breakthrough.

The human potential for self-healing through the placebo effect was also discovered in the 18th century. The power of belief can be just as strong as any medication.

Although the archaic practice was still common among colonial American doctors, the 18th century was a time of great advances in medicine. New medical treatments and devices were invented and discoveries were made that would lay the foundation for modern medicine.

Enlightenment Medicine

A Philosopher Wonders About Medicine During The Age of Enlightenment

The medical school of the 1700s was one of the most important schools of thought during the Enlightenment. This school of thought believed in using reason and science to understand the world. They believed that diseases could be cured with medicine and surgery.

Although science did not match this enlightenment ideal, it made great strides during this time. As we look back into history, it is easy to see how much medical knowledge has changed since the 1700s. Back then, germ theory was not yet known. This meant that physicians did not know how to prevent the spread of diseases.

Although nurses and physicians may have had good intentions, many of their practices would be considered barbaric by today’s standards. Unfortunately, death was a common occurrence in hospitals. Many patients died from the treatments that they received, rather than the diseases that they had.

18th Century Medical Treatments

As a review, bloodletting was a popular medical treatment in the eighteenth century was bloodletting. This was a practice where doctors would cut open a patient’s vein and allow them to bleed. They believed that this would rid the body of toxins and make the patient feel better.

Unfortunately, this often had the opposite effect. Patients would often become weak and anemic from the blood loss. In some cases, bloodletting led to death.

The understanding of cells, fevers, infection, germ theory, and general human health was still in the early days. Throughout this century, many medical treatments and practices were developed that we now know to be ineffective or even dangerous.

18th Century Medicine Timeline

  • 1747 – James Lind conducts a study and discovered that eating citrus fruits can prevent scurvy.
  • 1765 – The first medical school is established in Pennsylvania.
  • 1796 – Edward Jenner develops a vaccine for smallpox.
  • 1799 – Placebo effect is discovered.

These 18th-century medical advances do not compare to the rate of discovery and innovation that we see today. However, they were essential in laying the foundation for modern medicine. 18th-century medical inventions were also limited by the technology of the time.

For example, X-rays were not discovered until 1895. This meant that doctors could not see inside the human body. As a result, many medical procedures were performed blindly.

Eighteenth Century Medicine Facts

  • Bloodletting was a popular medical treatment in the eighteenth century.
  • Religious rituals were often performed in hopes of curing illness.
  • Mercury was thought to be a cure for syphilis.
  • Leeches were used to treat a variety of ailments.
  • Pregnancy and childbirth were extremely dangerous for women.
  • Doctors in the eighteenth century did not have a very good understanding of how the human body worked.

18th and 19th-century medicine: Worst Mistakes

By looking back in time and evaluating these mistakes, we can learn from them.

One of the worst medical mistakes made in the 18th and 19th centuries was the use of mercury to treat syphilis. Mercury is a highly toxic element that can cause serious health problems. Despite this, doctors carried on to prescribe it to patients.

Another poor health decision that a doctor would recommend is leeching. This was a treatment where leeches would be placed on the skin to suck out the blood. It was thought that this would remove toxins from the body. However, it often led to infections and other health complications.

Europe was plagued by yellow fever and typhus in the 18th century. Due to a lack of understanding about how these diseases were spread, doctors would often treat patients by bleeding them. This medical practice did more harm than good and led to many deaths.

Finally, the biggest mistake that was made during this time period was the lack of understanding about germs and infection. This led to many dangerous medical practices, such as using dirty instruments during surgery. Many American soldiers at war lost their lives simply due to unhygienic practices among health care practitioners.


The history of medicine during the enlightenment age was a story of both progress and mistakes. Although many medical treatments were ineffective, dangerous, or even deadly, the 18th century was a time of great advances in medicine. This was the century that laid the foundation for modern medicine.

What do you think? Was 18th-century medicine more harmful than helpful? Let us know in the comments!







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