In this entry about Regency Era doctors for my Regency Primer Series, we’re going to take a look at the medical profession. Just as there are lawyers and barristers, there the different were different types of Regency Era doctors: physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, midwives/accouchers, and barbers/dentists. These differences determined what they practiced and their place in society.
During the Regency, physicians occupied the highest rung on the social ladder. Because of their extra schooling and lack of apprenticeship, physicians were considered gentleman. These men did not practice a trade and the profession avoided manual labor. Physicians simply diagnosed patients and wrote prescriptions, but they didn’t dispense drugs.
Physicians often received social invitations from the families they treated. They would dine with the families or spend the night as a guest. Other practitioners ate with the servants, if required.
Although all three were doctors, surgeons and apothecaries were addressed as “Mister”, because only those who qualified as physicians could use the title of “Doctor”.
Surgeons learned their trade from an older doctor in a very hands on capacity. They treated common ailments of ordinary people. Thus, they occupied a lower rung on the social ladder. They did not always perform surgeries, but you could think of them as more general practitioners.
Apothecaries (or what we’d call pharmacists) learned their profession through an apprenticeship and definitely considered to be in “trade”. They ranked even lower on the social scale. As a group they “seceded from the Worshipful Company of Grocers, and were incorporated as a separate city livery company in 1617, [and] were supposed to stay in their shops and dispense the prescriptions written by the physicians.”
In rural areas where few physicians lived, apothecaries often functioned as surgeons as well, making house calls and treating patients. But largely, they mixed drugs, dispensed them, and trained apprentices.
Midwives / Accouchers
In the early nineteenth century mortality rates for both infants and mothers were high. Childbed fever was a significant risk, both from attending physicians and in maternity hospitals due to the lack of good hygiene practices at the time. Women who used midwives often had a higher survival rate simply because the women washed their hands between patients unlike the doctors and surgeons of the time. Remember, the discovery of germs and other microbes happened later in the 19th century.
In the late Georgian to Regency period, you also began to see the aristocracy employing accouchers or male doctors (whom we’d now call obstetricians) who specialized in the childbirth from conception to delivery. Accoucher is the French word for assisting with birth and accouchement is the process of giving birth.
Barbers / Dentists
Until 1859 in the United Kingdom, there was no formal education or qualification for those who provided dental treatment. It wasn’t until after 1921 that the practice of dentistry required professional qualifications in order to practice.
Through out the 19th century, dentistry was not considered its own profession. Barbers or general physicians typically performed dental procedures. Barbers tended to limit their practice to extracting teeth, which alleviated pain, and associated chronic tooth infection.
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