The 1900s Medicine and Health: Overview

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The 1900s Medicine and Health: Overview

Medical care during the nineteenth century had been a curious mixture of science, home remedies, and quackery. Many of the most basic elements of modern medicine, such as sophisticated hospitals, physician education and certification, and extensive medical research did not exist. By the turn of the century, however, both public and private institutions were beginning to advocate practices designed to improve public health. Local governments initiated programs to clean their water supplies and control the disposal of human, animal, and industrial wastes, which are known to spread disease if not handled in a proper manner. Many of the nation's finest colleges and universities raised their standards for admittance into medical schools to ensure that only the most qualified students graduated as doctors. Also, vaccinations were increasingly employed as a means to stop many diseases that plagued Americans.

Although health care of the nineteenth century appears quite primitive when compared to modern medical practices, significant scientific advances were made during the period. One of the most important of these breakthroughs occurred in the 1840s, when it was discovered that inhaling ether, or chloroform gases, lessened the pain of surgery. Physicians were now able to perform longer and more complicated procedures on their sedated patients. Another medical breakthrough of the era was the work of Englishman Joseph Lister, who pioneered the use of antiseptics. Previously, it had been unheard of to perform operations and other medical procedures in a sterile environment. Doctors and nurses commonly treated their patients with filthy hands and instruments that spread infection and disease. Medical equipment also made great advances during the nineteenth century, as doctors were introduced to such new tools as the stethoscope, laryngoscope (a device used to view the larynx), improved microscopes, the medical thermometer, and the X ray. Drugs were better administered with the new hypodermic needles and anesthesia machines. Furthermore, there was an increase in laboratory research, as scientists began to research cellular, bacterial, and viral causes for disease, which led to the creation of more sophisticated drug remedies.

Medicine not only evolved in scientific knowledge, but also as a profession. For decades in America, one did not need any formal medical training to call oneself a doctor or to treat patients. Many Americans relied upon local practitioners, not trained physicians, for diagnosis and treatment. But in the early nineteenth century, even professional physicians were required to meet rigorous standards. To improve the medical profession's social standing, a group of concerned doctors organized the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1848. After the Civil War (1861–65), other similar organizations, along with medical journals, were established to spread knowledge and raise the qualifications for becoming a physician. One of the leaders of this movement was Harvard University president Charles Eliot. He and others sought to strengthen medical licensing laws and bolster medical education throughout the nation. Their efforts would greatly improve the quality of health care in the country. Soon women and minorities were being trained as doctors and nurses in significant numbers for the first time in American history.

The nineteenth century witnessed numerous improvements in American health and medicine, but many important problems lingered as a new century dawned in 1900. Among the most significant were the lack of hospitals, laboratories, and medical libraries throughout the country. In 1900, most surgeries were still performed in the home. Another area of concern was the flood of tonics, home remedies, and patent medicines produced and sold to many gullible Americans by charlatans and quacks promising miracle cures. Frequently these "medicines" were little more than alcohol and "snake-oil," which were completely ineffective and occasionally even dangerous.

The twentieth century opened with many Americans desiring to reform the problems that had plagued the nation's health care system for generations. The AMA, which had been a weak organization for decades, became stronger and aggressively pushed for reforms. Government and local campaigns were also organized to combat such diseases as yellow fever, pellagra, tuberculosis, and hookworm, which plagued many communities. American medicine of the 1900s slowly improved, as dedicated men and women worked toward improving the nation's health.