From Bruce Haley. The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978:

In the first half of the century the medical world was raising the expectation that treatment of the body could become as exact a science as knowledge of the body. Throughout the land, much money and energy was being devoted to medical care and its study. Between 1801 and 1850 more university-educated men entered the profession in Great Britain (over eight thousand) than in all of previous history. The number of practitioners was well keeping pace with the enormous growth in population. This same period saw a continuing expansion of hospital facilities. Over seventy special hospitals were founded between 1800 and 1860, among them the London Fever Hospital, the Kensington Children’s Hospital, and the Free Cancer Hospital, Fulham. At the beginning of the century, hospitals in England and Wales were accommodating only an average of three thousand patients; fifty years later the number had grown to eight thousand.

The hospitals were providing not only more room for patients, but also expanded opportunities for the training of doctors. Especially after 1815, when the Apothecaries Act made mandatory for apprentices a half-year’s experience in an infirmary, hospital, or dispensary, hospital surgeons began routinely to assume teaching duties and the larger teaching hospitals were inundated by students. These places became important centers for the study of morbid anatomy when, with the Anatomy Act of 1832, all unclaimed bodies were sent to them for dissection.

Strides were being made not only in medical anatomy and physiology but also in pharmacology. Among the drugs isolated, concocted, or discovered between 1800 and 1840 were morphine, quinine, atropine, digitalin, codeine, and iodine. The nineteenth century was also a notable period in the identification, classification, and description of diseases. Scarlet fever was clinically distinguished from diptheria, syphilis from gonorrhea, typhoid from typhus. The work of the great French physiologist Claude Bernard on the digestion established the connection between diabetes and glucose in the blood. The inventor of the stethoscope, R.-T.-H. La’nnec, wrote an important treatise in 1823 that first clearly distinguished such diseases as pleurisy, emphysema, bronchitis, and pneumonia. The English clinicians Richard Bright, Thomas Addison, Thomas Hodgkin, and James Parkinson supplied the classic descriptions for the diseases named after them.

The British public followed with a keen interest these developments which seemed to promise a healthy nation. And yet, in looking around them, they could clearly see that the promise was far from being realized. In actual practice all the researchers, family physicians, apothecaries and surgeons — the whole of the medical profession — provided scant help in curing those diseases of which Victorians had been made so vividly aware. One of the rewards of bodily health, Charles Kingsley wrote, is that it "makes one unconscious of one’s own body." The constant threat of illness in the Victorian home made people conscious of their bodies, anxious to know how their bodies worked, and prepared to see a moral significance in the laws of life.

How — or is — the Victorian preoccupation with health and the body reflected in literature? Is there an increasing sense of bodily self-consciousness in the writing of that time?

Last modified April 1991