The Romantic Era: A Medical Revolution?
by: Ally Dawson, George Evagoras, Chelsea Lindsey, Mark Petell, Viplav Sinho, and Alex Sullivan


In An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age, Roy Porter states that “it would be unwarrantable to imply that the [Romantic] age constituted some revolutionary watershed that transformed clinical medicine and gave physicians and surgeons far greater powers than before to heal and cure, or even to understand the hidden causes of disease” (McCalman 170). What Porter doesn’t consider is that a shift in society’s approach to medicine and medical advancement could, in and of itself, be revolutionary. During the Romantic Age the practice of medicine evolved into a methodological science of medicine. Considering the effects of the Romantic Age on the evolution of medical practices is important in understanding how modern medical practices have come about.

The State of Medicine During the Romantic Period

In order to put the advancements and changes made during the Romantic Period into perspective, it is necessary to understand the state of medicine at the beginning and end of the period. Three very common practices were bleeding, amputation, the application of various chemical or herbal remedies, and blistering.

Dr. Laurence Heister

Bleeding, also called phlebotomy, is a procedure in which a surgeon drains blood from an area of the human body in order to achieve a desired effect. It was very common and was widely believed to work well, as is evident by the statement made by Dr. Laurence Heister in A General System of Surgery in Three Parts: "we begin with the Operation of Phlebotomy, because it is of all the most general, performed in most parts of the Body, and by much the most frequent in use at this present Day" (273). This procedure was done for a variety of reasons. Many physicians thought that draining the blood from a certain area could produce a relief of some sort, such as from migraines or inflammation. The practice was not universally accepted however, as some physicians had come out publicly saying that the procedure was harmful and barbaric. Heister addresses these claims in his work by stating: "...but I think all their Objections too weakly founded to need any Refutation, which might very well be made even only from the daily Experience we have of the great Usefulness of this Operation, in alleviating, preventing, and curing most Disorders of the human Body, especially those of the acute and inflammatory kind" (273). Heister's work was published in 1750, so the understanding that phlebotomy was a widely used and accepted practice is applicable to the beginning of the Romantic Period.

Amputation was a common treatment during the Romantic Period for problems like fractures. In the 1841 publication The Lancet, many physicians and surgeons discuss the procedure of amputation. Various methodologies for amputation are discussed for many parts of the body. A statistical study is also included that investigates the likelihood/necessity of amputation as well as survival rates of patients. The study found that amputation was necessary in a great deal of fracture cases, especially those involving joints such as the elbow, knee, or fingers (Wakley 1841).

Another common treatment during the Romantic Period was the application of chemical or herbal remedies. This can be seen in just about any medical journal from the time period that includes hospital reports. Volume 5 of the London Medical Gazette is one such publication. In the publication the Glasgow Eye Infirmary describes the process by which they cured a man's eye from injury that had resulted in loss of sight with the application of a great number of chemical ointments (224). The hospital reports cover everything from breast cancer to ulcers, with detailed records of what was applied as well as day-by-day developments.

Blistering was another common practice during most of the Romantic Period. George Man Burrows's Commentaries on the Causes, Forms, Symptoms, and Treatment, Moral and Medical, of Insanity, published in 1828, discusses the practice in detail. Burrows also discusses bathing, bleeding, and purging(forced vomiting), calling them "a part of that absurd system of routine treatment" (629). Blistering was a simple practice which consisted of burning the skin to cause a blister with the intent to remove or cure a disease or malady. Some physicians believed that only one disease could exist in the body at once, and therefore by inflicting a wound, any other disease would be forced out of the body. Burrows states: "blistering the head or nape of the neck is another very favourite remedy in insanity; but, like the exhibition of opiates, it is generally prescribed indiscriminately, without considering the nature of the case...As with opium, blistering appears to me too often prescribed at a venture, or as an experiment, and for want of knowing what better to do" (618). There is a lot that can be gained from this statement. Burrows calling blistering a "favourite remedy" shows that blistering was a common practice. More importantly though, he expresses frustration at the apparent lack of knowledge of many physicians of the time. He also recognizes that opiates and blistering are performed as experiments, showing that a shift was beginning in the approach that was being taken toward medicine, a shift toward scientific experimentation and development.

A Scientific Approach to Medicine

The Hunter brothers, William(1717-1783) and John(1728-1793), were two Scottish anatomists and surgeons in the Romantic Era
Dr. John Hunter
that began to apply the scientific method to medicine. "Hunter's philosophy of inquiry into the mystery of natural history is relfected in his comment to Edward Jenner: 'Why do you ask me a question, by the way of solving it? I think your solution is just, but why think, why not experiment?'" (Accumulatus). John did not perform well in school in his youth, dropping out at the age of thirteen, and much preferred a more hands on approach to learning(Whonamedit). He joined his brother in London in 1737 where he excelled in anatomy and dissection, and collecting specimens for teaching purposes. The brother's collection grew to over 14,000 preparations and eventually lead to the establishment of the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow in William's honor, and John's comparative anatomy museum (Accumulatus & Whonamedit). John is considered the founder of scientific surgery by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and his anatomical practices led to a more methodological approach to current-day medicine as his work is though to be the precursor to Oncology(NCBI). He applied "the inductive system of observation and experimentation to the study of disease," which led to the modern medical practices of today (Accumulatus).

Sir Charles Bell

Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842) took the same approach as fellow Scots, the Hunter brothers. Charles was one of the first physicians to combine the scientific study of neurology with the practice of medicine. His artistic gifts allowed him to keep detailed anatomical and surgical drawings and diagrams. Charles combined his talents in surgery, art, and writing into his first published work, Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting, in 1806. He and his older brother, John (1763-1820), ran the Great Windmill Street School of Anatomy, which was founded by William Hunter, from 1812-1825. He also, like John Hunter, served as a military surgeon, documenting numerous procedures and keeping elaborate records of injuries during his time. The detailed diagrams and surgical procedure accounts resulting from a scientific approach to medicine by anatomists in the Romantic Era was the beginning and led to the methodological approach that is used today.

The work of Dr. Astley Cooper(1768-1841), surgeon to Guy’s Hospital, exemplifies the growth of medical academia during the Romantic Period. He began studying medicine at the age of sixteen under Dr. Henry Cline who was surgeon to St. Thomas’ Hospital,
Dr. Astley Cooper
and in 1789, he was appointed demonstrator of anatomy. Coinciding with the new public interest in scientific discoveries, Cooper led a career that was primarily focused on anatomy and the study of the human body. On becoming surgeon to Guy’s Hospital, Cooper began publishing periodic works titled Surgical Essays. (Cooper) These papers included teachings of newly learned anatomy that was while performing surgery, dissecting cadavers, and dissecting animals.“In collecting the evidence upon any medical subject there are but three sources from which we can hope to obtain it: that is from living subjects , from examination of the dead and from experiments upon living animals." (Cooper) His work as a surgeon and scientist contributed to advancements in the understanding of the anatomy of the breast and testicles, but more importantly to the overall science of anatomy and surgery itself. Cooper’s biggest contributions came from the publication of his books titled Treatise on Dislocations and Fractures of the Joints (1822), Lectures in the Principals and Practices of Surgery (1824-1827), Illustrations of the Disease of the Breast (1829), and Anatomy of the Thymus Gland (1832). (NCBI)Although his scientific observations aren’t used very commonly in modern day, his teachings and anatomical methods were used in the 19th century to advance the knowledge of the human body. His teachings directly impacted John Keats, and other distinguished surgeons of the era. (Lyle)

Medical Advancements During the Romantic Period

Though the Romantic Age may not have been a "revolutionary watershed" in medical technology, significant advancements over the methods listed in the above section did occur and are worth noting. Below is a timeline of some of said medical advancements made during the the Romantic Age.


A great deal of medical advancements were made during the Romantic Period. As Roy Porter says, they may not have "constituted some revolutionary watershed that transformed clinical medicine," but they illustrate a shift in the mindset of society. The developments made during this period were a shift toward a society whose medical practices were based on sound scientific development and experimentation. The doctors, surgeons, and scientists discussed above are but a small drop in an ocean of people who changed the way the world approached medicine, and our current system is indebted to them.

Works Cited

Banergee, Arnan. “John Keats: his medical student years at the united hospitals of Guys’ and St. Thomas’ 1815-1816.” Journal of Royal Society of Medicine: 1989.

Burrows, George. Commentaries on the Causes, Forms, Symptoms, and Treatment, Moral and Medical, of Insanity. London: Thomas and George Underwood, 1828. Print.

Cooper, Astley and Travers, Benjamin. Surgical Essays. London. Cox and Son: 1818.

Heister, Laurence. A General System of Surgery. 1750. Print.

The London Medical Gazette. March 27, 1830. Print.

Lyle, T. Kieth. “Some of the Great Historical Figures Associated with Moorfields.” Ophtal: 1961.

McCalman, Iain. An Oxford companion to the Romantic Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Wakley, Thomas. The Lancet. 1841. Print.

Further Reading

Biographical Memoirs of Medicine in Great Britain
Authors: John Aikin
Publication: 1780
About: This book shows an account of many medicines that arose during the Romantic era in Great Britain. It is the first collection of British medical biographies and one of the earliest items of medical biography cited. This clearly supports our thesis because there were many new medical procedures and medicines documented in this book from the time period 1750-1850.

The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine: Comprising Treatises on the Nature and Treatment of Diseases, Materia Medica and Therapeuties, Medical Jurisprudence, etc., etc, Volume 1
Authors: Sir John Forbes, Alexander Tweedie, John Conolly.
Publication: 1833
About: The cyclopedia describes in detail the progression of medicine from ancient times including the advancements made during the Romantic Era. The prolonged description of medicine also helps us compare medical advancements in other periods which helps us better determine the significance of the medical advancements during the Romantic period. Describing the time period from 1750-1850 the physicians listed great advancement in anatomy, physiology, medicine, therapy, and surgery. The authors describe Romantic medicine not as a small advancement but instead they believe that various concepts were developed, and differing biological and conceptual answers were given to the triumph in medicine.

Medical Portrait Gallery: Biographical Memoirs of the Most Celebrated Physicians, Surgeons, etc.
Authors: Thomas Joseph Pettigrew
Publication: 1840
About: The portrait gallery lists the biographies of physicians and surgeons during the Romantic Era that contributed to the advancement of medical science. Each individual biography also lists specific medicines and procedures that the physicians and surgeons experimented and by doing this successful means of medicine were produced. The gallery is a very reliable piece because the author is certified and the biographies prove that the rise of medicine was at this time in full speed ahead.

British Medicine in an Age of Reform
Authors: Roger Kenneth French, Andrew Wear, Royal Institution Centre for the History of Science and Technology
Publication: Psychology Press, 1991
About: This book argues that the time period between 1780-1850 was one of the great turning points in British medicine. The contributors also suggest that during the Romantic Era medicine became a recognizable profession and by the end of the 1850’s many of the characteristics of modern medicine emerged. The contributors to British Medicine in an Age of Reform are all recognized experts in their subjects. The book provides a rich source of information for students in the history of medicine and science, and might also be helpful to those working in the medical profession.

Romanticism, Medicine, and the Poet's Body.
Authors: James Robert Allard
Publication: 2007
About: This book is very interesting because the author recognizes medicine as a parallel to Romantic Literature. First, the book acknowledges that during the Romantic period medicine became a very important discipline and practice. Next, Allard describes medicine as being a production of skilled medical artists and identifies these discoveries as a valuable genre. Allard surveys the trends in Romantic-era medicine and he also analyzes the body's treatment in texts by Wordsworth and Joanna Baillie. Allard then describes his theory of the Poet-physician that he discovered in the works of the medically trained John Keats, John Thelwall, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, and this figure forms his thesis that there are affinities between medicine and poetry in the Romantic era.

The Modern Practice of Physic.
Authors: Robert Thomas
Publication: 1809
About: The Modern Practice of Physic exhibits the characters, causes, symptoms, prognostic, morbid appearances, and improved method of treating the diseases of all climates. The book was intended for beginning doctors and medical students. Robert Thomas was a British physician and in his book he describes his methods for treating diseases. What is most prevalent in this book was that he practiced purgative methods for curing disease.

Primitive Physic, or, an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases.
Authors: John Wesley
Publication: 1843
About: John Wesley wrote this book because of one objective, and that was to bring practical medical advice to workers and to all people that could not afford the help of a private doctor. He lists an upwards of four hundred of the most useful and valuable methods for curing diseases and he also adds a considerable number of medicines to use.

First Lines of the Practice of Physic.
Authors: William Cullen
Publication: 1784
About: In this book William Cullen suggests that disease was the result of disturbances in the nervous system. So he condemned the use of laxatives and purgatives and prescribed only tonics: medicines such as quinine, camphor, or wine that would either stimulate or sedate the nervous system. The book was thought to be of Europe’s principal text on the classification and treatment of disease.

When Physics Became King
Authors: Iwan Morus
Publication: 2005
About: This book shows the evolution of physic in England, France, and Germany. Iwan Morus states that physic was born in the Romantic Era and he describes the struggle this science had to overcome to gain legitimacy. He continues to say that the science was widely practiced and that this became the “ultimate key to unlocking nature’s secrets.” He begins the book by contributing the rise of physics to natural philosophy and this eventually leads him to describe the adventure into which physic was established.

Medical Writing in Early Modern English
Authors: Irma Taavitsainen, Päivi Pahta
Publication: 2011
About: Medical writing tells us a great deal about how the language of science has developed in constructing and communicating knowledge in English. This volume provides a new perspective on the evolution of the special language of physic, based upon Early Modern English Medical Texts, containing over two million words of medical writing from 1500 to 1800.

The Art of Preserving Health
Authors: John Armstrong
Publication: 1744
About: The Art of Preserving Health is a poem divided into four books: Air, Diet, Exercise, and the Passions. The poem is written in a blank verse and is also described as didactic, meaning that it was written to teach and inform. John Armstrong gained repute through this work, and none of his other works were as influential.

Ode to Health
Authors: Mary Darby Robinson
Publication: 1791
About: Mary Robinson was an English poet and a mistress to men including King George IV and the Princes of Wales. Robinson was also an actress known for her role in Shakespeare's The Winter Tale as Perdita. Her poem Ode to Health, had references to botany and talks about the manifestation of certain countries, such as Italy and Switzerland.

Rational Physic, or, the Art of Healing
Authors: William Sampson
Publication: 1765
About: William Sampson was a surgeon during the Romantic Era. Rational Physic was a book describing the effects of many different things on a person's health. Sampson covered topics such as air, diet, exercise, sleep, and the passions. He also writes about a wide variety of remedies for an array of ailments in the latter section of the book.

Joseph Ritson, Percy Shelley, and the Making of Romantic Vegetarianism
Authors: Timothy Morton
Publication: 2006
About: Vegetarianism started becoming popular during the Romantic Era, when many people started to favor the exclusion of meat from their diet for reasons ranging from health to animal rights. This article discusses how the Romantics believed that early humans ate less meat and also mentions that vegetarians during the Romantic period actually protested.

Diagnosing Romanticism
Authors: Stephen Ahern
Publication: 2005
About: Discusses romanticism and some of its complex relationships with health. Ahern says that the Romantics would use topics such as health, healing, and medicine not only standing alone, but also in conjunction with larger, more complex metaphors dealing with struggles ranging from sexuality to politics to class struggle.