Tag Archives: history of medicine

Dealing with our Waste

In this world where there is a day for everything, today, 19 November, is International Toilet Day. Basic sanitation is still a luxury in many parts of the world – as this BBC photo spread shows.

The Redback on the Toilet Seat

Some dangers are specifically Australian. Record cover of the single released by Slim Newton, June 1972

Human waste disposal is a problem. A contaminated water supply can lead to cholera, dysentery and other infectious diseases, while parasites such as hookworm or schistosomiasis are picked up walking through contaminated soil or water in bare feet. Women in particular are at risk for other reasons, because finding a private place for their ablutions is difficult and potentially dangerous.

Australian cities have not always had clean and reliable sewerage. Continue reading

When is Old Age?

In 1555* Charles V abdicated. He was the greatest European ruler of his day, Emperor of Germany, Duke of Burgundy, King of Aragon (including chunks of southern Italy and Sicily) and Castile (including new conquests in the Americas), and various territories along the Danube and in North Africa.

He was born in 1500 – and when I taught European history to first year students, I used to say that he retired at 55 because at that age he could access his superannuation. As I got closer to the same milestone, I think my lecture became increasingly heartfelt, though sadly only the mature aged students ever really got the joke.

Not many rulers willingly abdicate. It usually takes a revolution of some sort, or a particularly sexy American divorcée, before they can be dragged off kicking and screaming. It was a particularly unusual act in the early modern era, when the sacral nature of a crowned king, ordained by God, was taken very seriously – and Charles was a serious and religious man.

Charles V by Titian (1548)

Charles V looks considerably older than 48 in this portrait by Titian from 1548

But he was also an exhausted man, and by the standards of his day already an old man. Continue reading

Thank God for Anaesthesia

Fanny Burney, diarist, letter-writer and novelist, was one of Jane Austen’s favourite writers.  She was the second daughter of the musician and writer, Charles Burney.  She was born in 1752, and spent her early years in Norfolk, but the family moved to London in 1770.

In 1778, Fanny published her first novel, Evelina, or, A Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, and other novels followed.  She became a member of the ‘Blue Stocking Club’.  In 1786 she became ‘second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte’, with a salary of £200 per year, 2 servants and an apartment in Windsor Castle.  Her social-climbing father loved her appointment, but Fanny apparently hated it, especially from 1788, when George III began to show signs of madness.  She retired from the court on half-pay in 1791.

Frances Burney's (1752–1840) last novel before...

Frances Burney (1752–1840)  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile the French Revolution had broken out.  During a break in Surrey the next year, Fanny met a group of émigrés who had settled nearby, including Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay, the former adjutant to the marquis de Lafayette.

Despite her father’s disapproval, they married, in the Church of England on 28 July 1793, and a second time, 2 days later, by Roman Catholic rites.  It was a happy marriage, although they had nothing to live on except Fanny’s £100 pension and the profits of her writing.  The following year, at the age of 42, Fanny bore a son, Alexandre.

In 1802, the Peace of Amiens ended Britain’s long war with France – temporarily as it turned out.  D’Arblay had returned to France in 1801 to try to retrieve his property, and now Fanny and their son joined him in Paris.  When war broke out again, the family was trapped, and Fanny didn’t return to England until 1812.

In September 1811, Fanny D’Arblay was diagnosed with breast cancer and told she would need a mastectomy.  There was no anesthesia and precious little hygiene.  Fanny later described her operation to her sister, Esther:

Continue reading