Topic: College of Fine Arts

October 30, 2015

If you want scary stories for Halloween, consider true tales of medical care from around the turn of the 19th century, courtesy of a Ball State instructor and a medical historian.

Colin Hart, who teaches theater history in the Department of Theatre and Dance, can tell anecdotes from his extensive, award-winning research into the period’s medical practices. As a Ball State junior, his job as dramaturg for the department's original 2013 version of "Frankenstein" led to collaborative learning and working with faculty members and other students.

Colin Hart

"In this era, you were more likely to die from seeing a doctor than to die from your actual condition."

Colin Hart, instructor of theater and dance and dramaturg for 2013 production of "Frankenstein"

James C. Whorton, professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Medicine, joins in this historical review. Whorton's doctorate is in the history of science, and he has focused specifically on medicine over the past few centuries.

Medicine was extremely experimental

19th century medicineMedicine was advancing quickly around the time that Mary Shelley penned "Frankenstein." It was like a medical Wild West.

"If a doctor wanted to experiment with mercury treatments and arsenic, they had people lining up to try it," Hart said.

"It was a scary time. These doctors were fascinated with what the human body could take and do and accomplish. Any science is random guesswork at first. It's scarier because this was random guesswork with our bodies."

Medical school took only eight months

You could call yourself a doctor without any training. But even when there was medical education, expectations were lax.

"Medical schools were run as businesses," Whorton said. "Faculty (area physicians) made their living on student fees. They didn’t want to be too demanding on students. If you flunked them all out, you're out of business."

What learning there was generally took about four months, covered basics from surgery to midwifery, was repeated a year later and resulted in a medical degree.

They tried to reanimate the dead


A convergence of scientific investigation, experimentation and the emergence of static electricity made for interesting times.

"Could you take a dead animal, pass an electrical jolt through it and 'reanimate' it?" Hart said.

That progressed to trying to revive people, especially those who'd drowned, with electroshock.

"All of the stuff in 'Frankenstein' fits in with the medical beliefs of the day," Whorton said. "There was reason to think that you might, in fact, be able to produce a living creature from dead parts. If you had interviewed doctors, they would've said, 'Well, no, you can't pick up bodies and sew parts together then bring it to life. But maybe ...'"

Got an infection? Cut off the limb

sawWhile there was a lot physicians didn’t know, they understood that a compound fracture (a bone coming through the skin) usually became infected. That was followed by gangrene and blood poisoning, making a painful death likely.

The medical answer? Amputation.

"Today it’s very easy to treat (such a fracture) without any need to remove the limb. But it was the standard practice then to amputate," Whorton said. "Generally, people who had amputations, the most common major operation, had a 40 to 45 percent chance of dying from infection. People just assumed, well, 40 percent mortality is just the natural rate. But somebody having 60 percent mortality, then that surgeon’s got a problem."

And physicians didn’t know about germs.

"Surgeons didn’t sterilize their instruments or their hands or their clothes. They just walked into the operating room and started cutting."

Forget about anesthesia

old medicineWhat? Someone’s cutting off your leg while you’re conscious?

"If you were wealthy enough to have some tincture of cocaine and alcohol, they'd give that to you to numb you, but you still were awake," said Hart.

Witness accounts of operations told of patients letting out screams worthy of modern horror movies, writhing in pain and struggling to get free.

Oddly, for five or six years after ether was successfully used in 1846 during a public operation, many surgeons wouldn’t employ it.

Doctors rationalized that pain stimulated the body to heal after an operation. A number of surgeons believed that without pain, patients risked death. So, still no anesthesia for you.

They treated 'ailments' with electric jolts

electricityAround 1810-20, hand-cranked "electricity" machines were used, often with disappointing results, to treat problems from nerves to fits of hysteria (a lot of illnesses among women were presumed to be caused by their reproductive organs). Electroshock also was employed to cure so-called genetic problems—such as being black (a white male was held as the ideal).

This contraption's two glass discs were rotated together to produce static electricity (a battery didn’t produce a steady electric current until 1821). A cloth in the center of the discs gathered the charges, which were discharged into diodes for treatment.

Before such machines, animals such as the torpedo fish, a sort of electric eel, were used for electrical jolts.

Amputation details (not for the squeamish)

Oh ye of weak constitutions, skip this part.

The basic tools of amputation were a long-bladed knife and a saw. The knife cut through the skin, then was used to help peel the skin from muscles, Whorton said. A longer knife sliced through the muscle to the bone, and then a saw cut through the bone. All in a few minutes, tops.

As soon as the surgery was over, red-hot metal plates often were applied to the stump to cauterize larger blood vessels. They then were tied off to keep them from reopening as a patient’s blood pressure recuperated from the shock of surgery.

Surgeries were about speed

"Frankenstein" settingBecause an operation was so torturous for a patient, "surgeons built their reputation on speed. The faster you were, the more in demand you were because your patients would suffer less," Whorton said.

"It was like their batting average. The record that I'm aware of is 48 seconds for the leading surgeon in London in the 1830s."

Surgeons had assistants time them, starting when the incision was made and stopping when the limb hit the floor. Speedy surgeons advertised their skill.

Yet even the man regarded as the top cutter in London, Robert Liston, wasn't perfect.

One tale has Liston, in his haste to amputate a man's leg, also mistakenly cutting off the bloke's testicles. And the good doctor might have had one 0-for-3 operation. Infection killed his patient and assistant (after Liston lopped off his helper's fingers), and a spectator died of a heart attack.