Medicine & Science   


Women in the Victorian Era   

Social Problems   






In a time of great political and industrial change for Scotland, many reforms and improvements resulted in major impacts upon the lives of the people. Laws were passed to reform and improve poor laws, sanitation and education, with sport, science and the arts also flourishing during this period. With great development in building, and consequently the addition of new Universities and magnificent libraries and museums, the cities of Scotland became highly respected in the sphere of learning and enlightenment.


Medicine and Science

At the Edinburgh and Glasgow Medical Schools during the Victorian era there were enormous advances in surgery, under great names such as Robert Liston, James Syme and Joseph Lister. This was also a time when the surgeon Joseph Bell, who had a reputation as an excellent diagnostician for his ability to observe and interpret the appearance of patients, and was thought to be the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes character, was working as a surgeon in Edinburgh and also lectured in surgery at the University.

Early Anaesthetics

Many experiments were carried out around this time to find suitable anesthetics, as without it, operations had to be carried out very quickly to avoid the patient dying from shock. Anesthetics such as nitrous oxide, ether and chloroform were tried, in order to enable surgeons to take more time and care with operations and also carry out more complex procedures. Edinburgh Obstetrician, James Young Simpson's experimentation with chloroform helped to advance the use of anesthetics, and chloroform in particular, became popular, having been used by Queen Victoria during childbirth in 1853. Nitrous oxide, although useful, was not considered strong enough for use in large operations, and became more commonly used in dental procedures.


It was common for patients to die from infections following surgery, as in the early half of the 19th century surgeons would carry out operations wearing their ordinary daytime clothes and without wearing gloves or even washing their hands. Operating theatres were dirty and crowded, with surgical instruments only receiving minimal cleaning between patients.

Chemists and Druggists

Chemists and druggist shops were very important at this time to people with limited means who couldn't afford to consult a doctor when they were ill. The chemist would sell his own prepared remedies and also give advice to patients. Until the late 19th century in Scotland, remedies were prepared and sold by chemists, with very little legal controls on what could be sold. Attempts were made at the end of the 19th century to limit the supply of 'dangerous drugs' such as morphine, however, it wasn't until into the 20th century that prescriptions were required for medicines.

Early Forensic Medicine

In Victorian Scotland, there was a growing importance in Medical Jurisprudence, the branch of study which connected medicine and law which aimed to prepare medical students for providing good evidence, and for law students to learn good forensic knowledge. The first Professorship of Forensic Medicine to be established in a British University occurred in Edinburgh in 1801, and during the 19th century there were many advances in the discovery of physiological action of drugs and poisons, and in anatomy, physiology and microscopy. Often, in the more complex cases involving murder or culpable homicide, expert witnesses could be called to give evidence. These expert witnesses were often prominent medical practitioners of the time, such as Dr Joseph Bell, who taught Arthur Conan Doyle when he began his studies at Edinburgh University in 1877 and is thought to be the inspiration behind the Sherlock Holmes character, due to the skills in observation and deduction he applied to his medical work. Bell, a lecturer at Edinburgh University Medical School in the 19th century, in his teaching emphasised the importance of close observation in making a diagnosis. He was considered a pioneer in Forensic Science. Conan Doyle, whilst working as Bell's Clerk, had to take patient notes prior to Bell examining the patient and he would often be astounded as Bell deduced all sorts of information without having to ask either Conan Doyle or the patient a question.



Popular forms of entertainment varied by social class. Victorian Britain, like the periods before it, was interested in theatre and the arts, with music, drama, and opera events being widely attended. The Music Halls were a type of theatrical entertainment which was very popular at this time, with acts typically being a mixture of popular song, comedy and speciality acts. Operas and Operettas were very popular with Victorians, particularly the upper classes. Due to the limited methods for reproducing music at home, public entertainment was often sought. Italian opera was particularly popular around this time and later, Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas were very widely attended.


Women in the Victorian Era

University education for women up until this time had been barely possible, however this was a topic of great discussion at the time, with divided opinion on the subject. It was from the mid-late nineteenth century that real progress began to be made, as a range of women's issues were at the forefront at this time. However, there were few in the 1860s who saw education as a way of changing women's lives and giving them opportunities, with many supporters at the time believing a higher education was necessary simply to make women more effective wives, mothers and teachers. In Edinburgh, the application of Sophia Jex-Blake to attend lectures at the Edinburgh medical school was granted in 1869 and the medical school received its first female student. Sophia Jex-Blake later set up a practice at Manor Place in the New Town in 1878, becoming the city's first female doctor, also establishing a clinic for poor patients. At this time, women did not have the right to vote. In 1847, a leaflet advocating votes for women appeared, leading to the formation of suffrage societies throughout Britain. The National Society for Women's Suffrage was founded about twenty years later following an unsuccessful attempt by John Mill to secure votes for women in the Second Reform Act.


Social Problems

Laudanum Abuse

Laudanum was an opium based painkiller which was widely prescribed by doctors in the Victorian era for ailments ranging from headaches to tuberculosis. It was also popular as a recreational drug, particularly among the working classes, as it was cheaper than gin.

Children at Work

The Factory Act was introduced in an attempt to improve conditions for children working in factories, and set a minimum age for child workers and maximum hours they could work depending on their age. It also stipulated that children were to receive two hours of schooling each day. This however was still far from ideal and it was not until 1870 that the Education Act came into place, which allowed many more children to attend school during the day. Though this was an improvement, it was not necessarily mandated that children attend school, therefore many children still spent the majority of their days working in the factories through financial necessity to provide food for their families. Children often worked in dangerous conditions in the factories, and because of their small size, they were often used for cleaning inside the machinery, which often resulted in trapped limbs and amputations.

Overcrowding and Poverty

Many Improvement Acts came into force in the mid to late 19th century, following health problems in the old tenements and also safety concerns regarding the buildings themselves. There were many outbreaks of cholera in the 19th century, and it was eventually discovered that the disease was spread by contaminated water supplies. The disease caused many deaths, with approximately 50% of people affected by the disease dying in the first half of the century. The disease took hold during the massive influx of rural people into the cities looking for work, resulting in overcrowding, squalid conditions and poor sanitation.


The name 'fallen women' was given to women who, in the eyes of the Victorians, had lived a life of sin by giving into seduction. Many homes such as the one above appeared in this period to attempt to reform these fallen women. Many of the women in these homes had previously worked as prostitutes and the idea was to retrain them, often for work as domestic servants, in order that they could re enter society.


Poorhouses were public institutions which housed and fed people who were unable to support themselves. The Scottish Poor Law Act of 1845 led to the establishment of parochial boards in the parishes and towns and additionally, a central Board of Supervision in Edinburgh. This Central Board of Supervision had the ability to raise local taxes to cover Poor Relief costs. There was a system of 'outdoor relief', which enabled people to receive help but stay in their own homes, however mismanagement of this system resulted in a more restricted system after 1868 which relied more on the poorhouse. Poorhouses intended to be hostile and harsh places, in which only the truly destitute would seek refuge. It was hoped that the poorhouses would solve the problem of poverty as many rich people believed people were poor because they were lazy.




Expansion of the railway network was rapid and continuous in this period, with the railway initially being used more for moving freight than passengers, as this generated more income for the railway companies, with the railways being able to move traffic far more cheaply and efficiently than other forms of transport. Conditions in trains in Britain were initially quite bad for passengers as well, particularly second and third class passengers, with some third class passengers having to stand in open carriages not so different from the cattle trucks described above. However, despite these conditions, passenger services continued to grow, making trips to the seaside and commuting possible. This led to the better off people moving to the suburbs rather than living in the inner cities. Constant expansion of the railway network brought problems, with accidents being fairly common. There were also frequent accidents on the line, due to excessive speed, inadequate brakes and poor traffic control. The carriages, by their construction did not make for particularly safe travel either, usually being made of wood and having gas lighting. However, there were steady improvements in safety and comfort during the Victorian era with the first lavatories appearing in trains in 1860s.


The omnibuses, or buses, as we known them today, were originally horse drawn. Operated by private companies, fierce competition led to many contraventions of the 'omnibus bye laws'.


Throughout this era, horse drawn carriages were the common means of transportation. Wealthier people owned and travelled in their own carriages and others could pay to travel on stage coaches. For most people, however, vast distances were covered on foot.