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The Enlightenment – or the Age of Reason, if you prefer – was a ground-breaking movement of the 18th century that placed emphasis on reason and science. It should come as a surprise that medicine flourished during this precise moment in history. The Enlightenment established a more optimistic look with regard to the role of advantages of medicine. In the pursuit of progress, individuals were strongly convinced that health can be maintained and protected. During the 18th century, medicine made fantastic progress. If you’re curious to find out more, please continue reading. 

The end of smallpox 

Smallpox is an acute contagious viral disease, caused by the variola virus. A long time ago, the smallpox virus emerged and started causing illness in human populations. The earliest evidence of smallpox skin lesions dates back to the 20th Egyptian dynasty, the first-ever epidemic taking place during the Egyptian-Hittite War in 1350 B.C.E. By the middle of the 18th century, smallpox was present everywhere in the world except for Australia and small islands left unexplored. Common treatments included herbal remedies, bloodletting, and exposing patients to red objects. Needless to say, these treatments were quite ineffective. 

Roughly 400,000 Europeans passed away in the 1700s. The vast majority of people became infected during their lifetime and 30% died from the disease putting a great deal of pressure on remaining survivors. Infants and babies were particularly susceptible to smallpox infection. Something had to be done to put an end to the disease once and for all. The first successful vaccine was introduced in 1796 by Edward Jenner. In modern times we don’t have to worry about smallpox and it’s all thanks to this person. Edward Jenner had reason to believe that cowpox protected people from getting smallpox. 

In case you didn’t know, cowpox is a mildly eruptive disease of cows that can be transmitted to humans. Edward Jenner took samples from the lesions of people infected with cowpox and injected them into the body of a healthy young boy. While the youngster felt a little bit of discomfort in the first days following the procedure, he immediately got better. Edward Jenner finalized the experiment by taking fresh matter from a smallpox lesion and injecting it into the same boy. He was completely immune to smallpox. In 1797, Edward Jenner presented his experiment and observations to the Royal Society. 

The first scientific study of the process of childbirth 

Giving birth isn’t easy. Scientists have long tried to understand the challenges associated with human childbirth. In the 18th century, they knew nothing about childbirth, meaning that it hadn’t been explored scientifically. William Smellie was the first physician to make a scientific study of the physical processes of childbirth. His Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery was published in 1752. It discussed the safe use of obstetrical forceps, which saved a great many lives. It’s important to understand that, until this point, childbirth and midwifery were done in accordance with tradition. A lot of what medical doctors and midwives did was guesswork. 

Ever since 1741, William Smellie gave midwives, as well as medical students, impressive lectures on childbirth. Most importantly, he offered his services to poor women provided that students were able to assist in the procedure. William Smellie took advantage of any opportunity to describe details that were previously ignored. A good example would be the way the baby’s head is adapted for the passage through the pelvic canal during birth. Not many know that William Smellie designed the version of the obstetrical forceps that we know today. 

These days, labor is relatively easy. You can give birth within a matter of hours with far less assistance. If you opt for cesarean delivery, you can lower your risk of birth injuries like shoulder dystocia or oxygen deprivation. It takes about 4 weeks for the incision to heal and it’s recommended to tape your scar with adhesive tape specifically manufactured for this use. It’s horrible to think that numerous women died due to causes related to pregnancy or childbirth. The majority of deaths could have been prevented with the right medical care.

18th century – the dawn of modern pathology 

To put it simply, pathology is the science that deals with the causes and effects of diseases. It’s a branch of medicine that concentrates on the laboratory examination of body tissue samples for diagnostics and forensic purposes. Interestingly, the birth of modern pathology took place in the 1700s. A groundwork is provided to pathology from Giovanni Battista Morgagni. In 1761, he published a very important work intitled De Sedibus et Causis Morborum that can be translated as The Seats and Causes of Diseases Investigated by Anatomy. He spent 5 decades as a professor of anatomy at Padua. 

The work is thorough, which means that it covers all the conditions of the human body and contains records of approximately 640 dissections. The findings after death were correlated with the clinical picture in life. There have been several published accounts of post-mortem examinations. The originality of Giovanni Battista Morgagni lies in the related notes describing patients’ symptoms before they passed away. 

Autopsies became more common. Medical students were so numerous that it was necessary to share cadavers. The fact of the matter is that physicians were in a shortage of bodies to dissect, so they were frequently acquired from doubtful sources. More often than not, the bodies were taken from graves and opened up. This may sound outrageous, but it’s essential to understand that these cavers have considerably contributed to modern medicine and modern surgery. Autopsies in the 1700s provided evidence that the human body wasn’t controlled by spiritual beings. It was discovered that life and health are governed by certain laws and things could be explained by cause and effect. 

 All in all, medicine grew in importance during the 18th century. Health came to be perceived as something positive and desirable and leading physicians formulated new medical theories that changed everything for the better. Despite the many medical achievements of the time, a number of practitioners were still attracted to historical craft.