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What The Industrial Revolution Did For Us - Programme 4 - Modern Medicine

Updated Thursday, 1st December 2005

Find out more about the Modern Medicine programme, part of the BBC/OU's 'What the Industrial Revolution Did for Us' TV series.

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Up until the mid 18th century, you had a better chance of survival if you chose not to visit a doctor. But these rather grim facts of life and death were about to change. The Industrial Revolution brought the hope that technology and progress might be applicable to an unthinkable dream: a world without disease and suffering. But the adventure was to be difficult and the road fraught with wild plans and false hopes. 

Along the way we meet men like Thomas Beddoes, the wild optimist, and his assistant Humphrey Davy, whose Pneumatic Institute vested its hopes in gas, and who by trial and error created a medical miracle, Nitrous Oxide, (laughing gas), the first anaesthetic. Other doctors trying to bring hope to medicine include William Withering, who created the first modern drug after an encounter with a gypsy and a strange plant called Digitalis (foxglove), with the power to heal ailing hearts. Doctors on sea as well as on land, at war as well as at peace, made hugely important discoveries for prevention of ill health. James Lind conducted the first ever clinical trial and, with his Citric (vitamin C) cure for Scurvy, was in fact the real hero behind Captain Cook’s famous voyage of discovery to Australia. Edward Jenner created the first vaccine against the biggest killer of the century, Smallpox.

But there was still much for which there was no cure. Dan examines some of the alternative therapies dreamt up by the age. Why was Benjamin Franklin so keen to ‘air bathe’ naked every morning? How did the Industrial Revolution create a fashion for the Spa Town, branded a ‘rich fool's folly’, and why was ‘Dr Horse’ considered the best therapy for almost anything?

And what about the innovative quacks who peddled the promise of health to anyone who would listen. We discover how Isaac Swainson made £5000 in one year out of ‘Vegetable Balsam', meet Elisha Perkins and his patented ‘Magnetic Tractors’, and Dr. James Graham, the inventor of the ‘Celestial Bed’ to whom we can trace the origins of modern marketing and advertising.

Finally we head into the sprawling, wheezing cities of a newly industrialised nation and reveal the price that progress exacts on the people working within them. How did Percival Pott find out that chimney sweeps were dying, and what did he do about it? How did the steel industry bring about Grinders Asthma, or wool working Weavers' Lung?

What was to be done to reform the rampant spread of disease and ill-health in the big smoke? We meet the reformers: Ignaz Semmelweis, who suggested that washing your hands might be a good idea after an autopsy; John Howard who wanted clean, light and airy hospitals; William Tuke, who campaigned for a more socially sympathetic approach to madness, where kindness, reason and humanity became the watchwords. And, as the 19th century steams steadily ahead, we find out how Rene Hyacinthe Laennec’s prudishness helped him invent modern diagnosis with the enduring symbol by which we still recognise the modern doctor; the stethoscope.


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