Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) was the first British woman to qualify as a doctor. In 1874 she established the London School of Medicine of Women. Her determination to break down the prejudice against women in the medical profession paved the way for other women. In 1876 an Act of Parliament was passed which permitted women to enter all of the medical professions. Today, one of the leading hospitals in London is named after Anderson in tribute to her contribution to the medical profession. And her example led women all over the world to demand equal rights.
The Suffragettes in the early 20th century argued that women as doctors could be trusted with lives, yet were excluded from the basic right to vote. Joseph Lister (1827-1912) was Professor of Surgery at Glasgow University. Her was concerned with the number of patients dying from infection and blood poisoning after operations and set about trying to reduce this by improving the cleanliness of operations. Lister read about Pasteur’s discovery of germs and decided that to prevent infection, he needed to ensure that the germs present in the air didn’t get into the wound.
Lister conducted an experiment on an 11-year-old boy, who had been run over by a cart and had a fractured leg, leaving the bone exposed. Once Lister had cleaned the wound, he placed a dressing covered with carbolic acid over it. Lister knew that carbolic acid was used the disinfect drains and therefore thought that if may have the power for kill germs. The boy survived and did not suffer from and gangrene of infections. Lister decided to develop his theory further by inventing a carbolic spray which could be used to spray the operating are.
Lister also insisted that the operating theatre was kept clean, the surgeon wore clean clothes and the instruments were regularly disinfected. Deaths from blood poisoning and gangrene were reduced and before he died, Lister’s services to medicine were recognised and he was awarded a knighthood. Today, the terms, ‘Before Lister’ and ‘After Lister’ are used to describe surgery. John Snow (1813-1858). During the 1830s and 1840s when severe cholera epidemics threatened London, Snow had become interested in the cause and transmission of the disease.
In 1849 he published a brief pamphlet ‘On the mode and communication of cholera’, suggesting that cholera is a contagious disease caused by poison that reproduces in the human body and is found in the vomitus and stools of cholera patients. He believed that the main, although not only, means of transmission was water contaminated with this poison. This differed from the commonly held theory that diseases were transmitted by inhalation of miasma. The pamphlet was largely ignored, being one of many hopeful theories that were trying to find the link between cholera and water.
In 1854 through painstaking documentation of cholera cases and correlation of the comparative incidents of cholera among subscribers to the city’s two water companies, he showed that cholera occurred much more frequently in customers of the Southwark and Vauxhall water company. This company drew its water from the lower Thames where it had become contaminated with London sewage, whereas the other company obtained water from the upper Thames. Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) was part of Robert Koch’s research team. Koch had shown that certain dyes sought out certain bacteria.
Ehrlich spent hours staining bacteria and observing the effects of the dye. He working with Behring on diptheria and became interested by the way the body created antibodies which killed the bacteria but did not harm anything else. He was convinced that a chemical could be found that might do the same, and set out to find one. In 1905 he was looking for this ‘magic bullet’ to treat syphilis. Instead of dyes he experimented with a variety of chemical compounds based on arsenic. Ehrlich tried 605 variations before he found one that worked.
He very nearly missed the discovery that 606 worked, and it was only when it was being retested that another assistant Sahashiro Hato realised that it killed the syphilis bacteria. This compound was named Salvarsan, but it was difficult to use – it could kill not only the microbes causing the disease but the patient as well. Ehrlich’s discovery was important because it was the first chemical compound that had been discovered to kill bacteria. How far did new ideas and treatments affect the majority of the population in the industrial age?
The improvements in public health benefited all of the population. Surgeons and physicians were still costly, but the new types of doctors were becoming more and more affordable. Theories such as the germ theory improved personal hygiene which raised the level of health for individuals. Treatments were beginning to lower infection rates after surgery through hygiene for doctors and hospitals. Vaccinations became compulsory by law which made a massive improvement in general health and lowered death rates dramatically.
The influence of science as the dominant form of research lead to individuals producing new theories on the cause of disease and ill health. These theories were tested and proved scientifically, with the help of new technology and equipment. It was thanks to a few dedicated individuals that new public health measures could be introduced to combat disease.