Medicine in 19th Century Europe– Yuchen

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~ 19th Century Europe ~

In the 19th century, western medicine experienced major changes and advancements because of the industrialization and urbanization that created both ideal condition for various diseases to break out as well as the opportunity for the discovery of new medical knowledge and development of new treatment methods.

There are two paradigms that were vital to western medicine in the 19th century— the Cell Theory and the Germ Theory. The Cell Theory, regarded as the foundation of modern biology, also marks the beginning of modern medicine, which is heavily based upon modern biology. These two theories allowed western medical knowledge to move beyond the anatomical level to the cellular level, opening up countless possibilities for the development of more effective treatments for diseases.

At the same time, industrialization and urbanization brought rapid economic development and immense wealth to European countries, but they also brought industrial diseases and public health issues.

~ Public Health Issues ~

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A City in 19th Century England

Increase in urbanization and trade during the Industrial Revolution has significant public health implications. While living in densely populated urban environments, people were exposed to new diseases and a more complex environment. The often less-than-ideal sanitary conditions of urban towns and the gradually expanding international and intercontinental trade create perfect conditions for lethal infectious diseases to breed. (Szreter)

Despite the negative effects, industrialization has also contributed to the overall improvement of population health in the long run. It resulted in economic growth that brought about significant increase in per capita income, higher life expectancy at birth, better nutrition, more advanced scientific and medical technology and more convenient access of information for doctors and researchers around the world.

~ The Cell Theory ~

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Matthias Schleiden   &   Theodor Schwann

In 1839, Theodor Schwann and Matthias Schleiden formally articulated the Cell Theory, establishing the foundation for modern biology and modern medicine. It predates many other great paradigms of biology including Darwin’s theory of evolution, Mendel’s laws of inheritance and the establishment of comparative biochemistry. The Cell Theory states that all organisms are composed of similar units or organization called “cells.” Without the Cell Theory, our medical knowledge would have stagnated at the anatomical level and would have never advanced to the cellular and molecular level. (History of Biology)

~ The Germ Theory ~

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Louis Pasteur in his laboratory

In the mid-19th century, Louis Pasteur, a french chemist and microbiologist, discovered that “organisms in the air” are the culprits that cause fermentation and putrefaction. This discovery led to further developments of the Germ Theory and its application in the medical field. In the 1860s, the use of carbolic acid (or phenol) to exclude atmospheric germs during surgeries by English surgeon Joseph Lister was the first step towards standardization and modernization of medical procedures. (The Editors)

Screen Shot 2019-03-28 at 22.49.52Louis Pasteur’s revolutionary discovery of atmospheric microorganisms also saved the beer, wine and silk industries in France through a special heating treatment that was later patented in his name as pasteurization. Today, pasteurization is essential for processed food, eliminating pathogens and extending the shelf life of those products by treating them with mild heat in a controlled environment. This website introduces the basics of pasteurization, including different pasteurization technique and the effects on nutritional values and taste.  (Ullman)

~ Women in Medicine ~

Before the 19th century, the field of medicine was dominated by men, with women mostly restricted to nursing. Male doctors and surgeons held high social status. In the 19th century, women began to play a more important role despite oppositions from male doctors.

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Elizabeth Blackwell

In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the pioneer in the struggle for female representation in the medical field by becoming the first woman in America to receive a medical degree. In her career, she faced discrimination and isolation from the medical community. (Michals)

In 1851, with her hard work and the help from the Quaker friends, Blackwell was able to open a small clinic for treating women in poverty in New York City. Later in 1857, she established the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with her sister Dr. Emily Blackwell and her colleague Dr. Marie Zakrzewska to provide more opportunities for women physicians at her time. In her later years, she returned to her hometown London and taught at the London School of Medicine for Women as a professor of gynecology. (Michals)

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Medical students attending a lecture at the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary

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Florence Nightingale

Another influential woman in the field of medicine in the 19th century was Florence Nightingale. Her contribution towards the improvement of sanitary conditions and standard procedures for patient care during the Crimean War between the British Empire and the Russian Empire made her a national hero and raised nursing as an honorable vocation, establishing an important foundation for modern nursing. (

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Creimean War: Florence nightingale in the barrack hospital at Scutari, c.1880.


In the following blog post, I will share my experience at a Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic in Xi’an opened by a friend of my parents who studied both western and eastern medicine. I was fascinated by the level of sophistication of TCM in practice and how it has incorporated modern technology into herbal medicine processing. I was able to truly experience the wisdom and essence of TCM.

Works Cited

“19th Century Medicine Part 1.” BBC, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

“19th Century Medicine Part 2.” BBC, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

City in 19th Century England. History at Normandale, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, editor. “Germ Theory.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 20 July 1998, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

Elizabeth Blackwell. Britannica, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

Florence Nightingale in the barrack hospital at Scutari. Cosmos, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

Germ Theory. SafeSpace,

Hering, Henry. Florence Nightingale. 1860. Wikimedia Commons, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019. Editors, editor. “Florence Nightingale.”, 9 Nov. 2009, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

“History of Biology: Cell Theory and Cell Structure Read more:” Biology Reference, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

Lin, Hugo. Cell Theory. ThoughtCo., Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

Louis Pasteur injecting rabies virus into a rabbit’s brain. Wikimedia Commons,

Louis Pasteur, inventor of the germ theory of disease, in his laboratory. Get Science,’t-know-about-vaccines. Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

Ludlow and Houston Streets. Tenement Museum, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

Mallery, Charles. “The Cell Theory.” University of Miami, 2003, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

Michals, Debra, editor. “Elizabeth Blackwell.” National Women’s History Museum, 2015,

Pasteur and Pasteurisation. The Hindu, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

Szreter, Simon. “Industrialization and Health.” Oxford Academics, 1 June 2004, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

Ullman, Agnes. “Louis Pasteur.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 20 July 1998, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

Widnes Smoke. Wikimedia Commons, Accessed 30 Mar. 2019.

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