What a doctor in the 1780s would have prescribed


William Cullen  Photo: Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, via telegraph.co.uk
William Cullen Photo: Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, via telegraph.co.uk
Health and medical advice from the 1780s (it's generally not pretty)

If you’ve ever wondered what a doctor might have prescribed you in the 1780s then a cache of letters recently published online by one esteemed doctor of the time, Scotsman William Cullen, will ease your curiosity. And probably make you want to kiss your penicillin and birth control with gratitude.

Dr William Cullen was, according to the Telegraph in London, a medical oracle of the time. He spent a lot of time answering the anxious letters of patients from around the world and across socio-economic circumstances. Common ailments included fevers, colic and something alarming called “horrors.”

Dr Cullen was meticulous in maintaining his copies of the letters, and thanks to four years of work by researchers at Glasgow University the letters – all 17 boxes of them – are available online.

So what kind of advice did the great doctor give? A lot of it would fall under the category of ‘lifestyle’ tips – with advice on diet, living conditions and physical activity.

Other advice included:

  • Cold baths
  • Vomiting
  • Blood-letting
  • Flesh brushing
  • Applying leeches on the body

As reported in The Telegraph, letter writers – most paid two guineas per letter, with fees waived for the poor – had vastly differing ailments. From a Scottish plantation owner asking how to cure a slave’s epilepsy to a man writing about his depression, or as he quite lyrically put it, “ I find my mind gloomy and melancholy to the last degree. I have no desire for company and yet I cannot bear to be alone.”

The doctor often included medical prescriptions with instructions written for the patient to take to an apothecary.

Dr Cullen died at the age of 79 in 1790.




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