Medicine and public health

Modern medicine is very different from medicine that was used hundreds of years ago as we now have a better idea of what causes illnesses and therefore how to treat them effectively. Now we know about germs and the importance of keeping clean, but since the decline of the Romans and their ideas on public health, people have lived in horrendous conditions, which helped the spread of disease.

The Public Health Act of 1848 began the improvement of conditions in towns and therefore helped to prevent the spread of disease, but it was not until germs were identified by Louis Pasteur in the late 1800s that illnesses could really be prevented and cured. Before this discovery, most had superstitious beliefs about the cause of illnesses.

Medical professionals had many theories as to how disease was spread. The most commonly accepted was the Miasmatic Theory. It was claimed that disease was spread through a medium called night air or bad air; they believed that this poisonous air was created by decomposing organic matter such as human waste.

Cholera in Wrexham                                                       

The Public Health Act failed to make a major impact on public health in Wrexham. Even before 1848, Wrexham had its own health committee. Headed by the vicar, Canon George Cunliffe, it was created in response to the Cholera outbreak in 1830, and succeeded in saving the town from the plague. The Health Committee also managed to prevent an outbreak of cholera in 1866. (NCD/164- Notes on Wrexham’s escape from the plague, 1977)

In 1866, Wrexham Board of Health (NCD/934) advised:

  • “To remove and guard against accumulations of filth and refuse matter.”
  • “Change bed linen frequently.”
  • “To avoid drinking alcohol.”

Reform in Wrexham

During this period, public health reform was spreading throughout Britain. It started with medical professionals gathering evidence and submitting it to the General Board of Health, in the form of medical reports. Read below a section of the Report to the General Board of Health 1849, signed by notable professionals, including surgeons to the Wrexham infirmary G.Lewis, William Rowland and Thomas T. Griffeth (DD/DM/228/59).

“The undersigned medical men who have resided in this town for various periods, from 5 to upwards of 31 years, have always observed that certain parts of Wrexham had been in an unhealthy state, frequently visited by epidemic and endemic diseases’ often of a fatal character, and generally severe, especially as compared with other parts of the town more favourably-circumstanced with respect to the character of houses, cleanliness of inhabitants, air and water.”

Prescription Book

Prescription Book
Above is a page from a prescription book of I. J. Edisbury of 3 High Street,
Wrexham, 1888 (ref: DD/DM/801/1).

View the page from a 19th century chemist’s prescription book. See if you can read the ingredients for the medicines (and household solutions). Do any of the ingredients seem odd? Why do you think soap and treacle are ingredients in the ‘Cheap pills for Quacks’ (a quack was a person who pretended to be a doctor)? Can you find ‘Dragon’s blood’? What do you think it is? And is the stain some of it that was spilt on the book?!

Read the transcription here.

We have a number of records relating to public health.  They can be found within various collections including:

Borough Records (for Denbigh, Ruthin, Wrexham, Colwyn Bay, Ref: BD), Rural District Council Records (Ref: RDD), Urban District Council Records (Ref: UDD), Denbighshire Councy Council Health Department Records (Ref: CD/H), Wrexham Rural Sanitary Authority (Ref: GD/C), Conwy Union Rural Sanitary Authority (Ref: GD/D) and various hospital records (Ref: HD).

                                                                                                                                                     Blog post created by Rachel Thomas (Prestatyn High School) and Miles Catania (Ysgol Brynhyfryd), work experience placement July 2013.

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