Medicine during the Early Modern Age

Home learning focus

Learn about medicine in the Early Modern Age.

This lesson includes:

  • two videos about medical advancements in the 16th-18th centuries

  • two activities to build knowledge and understanding

Learn

Advances in medical procedures and medicines mean that today, you are likely to be healthier and live longer than at any other time in human history.

However, the Early Modern era, from around 1500 to 1800, was a grim time to be poorly. In 1721, the average age of death was about 32.

In this short animation, learn more about medicine in Early Modern Age and how they treated illness and disease.

Medicine in the Early Modern Age.

There were some major medical advances during the Early Modern era, such as William Harvey's discovery of blood circulation in 1628, and Anton van Leeuwenhoek's observation of bacteria in 1683.

However, despite these discoveries, until the middle of the 19th century, doctors still blamed a 'miasma' (a bad smell) for diseases. They had not yet discovered that germs were, in fact, the cause of illness.

With many significant gaps in medical knowledge, common conditions and injuries we can easily treat today were very often fatal.

In the face of an infectious disease like the Great Plague of 1665, doctors were powerless.

A diagram showing where veins are located in the arm during an experiment by William Harvey

Treatment

Many people resorted to using 'quack doctors' (someone without real medical knowledge or qualifications) and experimenting with crazy cures to treat illness and disease.

  • A lot of treatment was about making the room and the patient smell nice (doctors wore full bodysuits – with a 'beak' that was crammed with herbs – so that they wouldn't smell any bad odours).
  • Explorers found some new drugs in America (eg quinine, which can treat malaria), but doctors didn't know how or why they worked. Tobacco was also said to cure everything from wind to snake bites.
  • They continued superstitions such as 'touching for the king's evil' (they thought the touch of a king would cure the skin disease scrofula).
An illustration of the Quinine plant

Surgery

There was some progress in surgery on a 'trial-and-error' basis.

Ambroise Paré's Treatise on Surgery (1564) shows his ideas on how surgeons should treat wounds and amputations. Paré also invented several new surgical instruments.

Ambroise Paré is shown treating a wounded soldier.

Public health

Many historians argue that conditions in Early Modern times were worse than medieval times as towns were larger and more densely populated. It is also believed that:

  • People did not take much care of their personal cleanliness – It is thought that Queen Elizabeth I bathed four times a year.
  • Towns were filthy, and rubbish and human waste were thrown into the streets.

However, it would be wrong to think that people did not care about dirt and disease:

  • Henry VIII insisted that everyone at court was healthy, courtiers were even sent away if they had a cold.
  • Although people thought terrible smells caused disease, this led them to do things which improved health – eg, cesspits were cleared regularly, and housewives spent a lot of time boiling underclothes, to keep them smelling nice.

Practise

There are lots of fun ways to practise your historical knowledge of medicine in the Early Modern era, online and offline.

Here are a few you could try.

Activity 1

Glossary

Create a glossary, a list, of the key historical terms introduced in this guide.

Activity 2

Use this activity from SAM Learning to test your knowledge and understanding of early modern medicine.

Test your knowledge of medieval medicine

There's more to learn

Have a look at these other resources from around the BBC and the web.

Bitesize Daily lessons
16th-18th Century medicine
KS3 Medicine through time