How the Church Affected the Development of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century

This post by James McDonald originally appeared at Bad News About Christianity.

In this cartoon, the British satirist James Gillray caricatured a scene at the Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras, showing cowpox vaccine being administered to frightened young women. (Credit: James Gillray / Wikipedia / Public Domain)

No people do so much harm as those who go about doing good.
Bishop Mandell Creighton (1843-1901), Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton

In Europe the Galenic practice of bloodletting continued into the nineteenth century, long after the four humour theory that underlay it had been abandoned.

Eastern medicine continued to filter into Europe during the nineteenth century. For example, hypnosis for anaesthetic purposes had long been known in the East; the technique was introduced to Britain by James Esdaile on his return from India around 1840. Indian physicians, it would turn out, had known about the link between rats and plague in the fifth century BC.

Inconvenient discoveries could always be incorporated into the religious scheme of things in one way or another. When the existence of bacteria was established, true believers knowing for a fact that sin was the cause of illness deduced that bacteria must be the result of illness, rather than the cause of it. This is what millions of Christian Scientists believe today.

That medical cures could be effected only by supernatural means was still accepted by the faithful. The correct procedure was to use holy relics, to undergo penance, to pray or to fast. As late as 1853 the Presbytery of Edinburgh petitioned Queen Victoria for a nationwide fast against a cholera epidemic. For centuries cleanliness had been considered a sin; it had been a Christian’s duty to accept God’s natural filth except in exceptional circumstances12. Ideas started to change in the wake of medical science. Now, as John Wesley put it, cleanliness was next to godliness. By Victorian times baths were acceptable for all.

The battle was far from over. Christian leaders were still denying medical help to those who needed it. Leo XII (pope 1823-1829) forbade vaccination during a smallpox epidemic because it was “against the natural law”. This undoubtedly increased mortality, particularly among the Jews that the Pope had confined to a cramped ghetto. Another favourite Christian idea was that all manner of illness was caused by sinful sex. Coitus interruptus was said to cause nervous disorders and pelvic complaints in women. Masturbation caused all manner of problems. In addition to those mentioned already (see page 483), it caused gastric disorders, vomiting, coughing, hoarseness, palsy, lethargy, pallor, emaciation, facial cysts, amnesia, dementia, paralysis, fever, palpitations, headaches, dizziness, tremors, cramps, chest pain, abdominal pain and kidney problems. It also caused suicides. In 1758 DR Simon Tissot of Lausanne had published Onania in which he claimed that masturbation caused the brain to desiccate so that it could be heard rattling around in the skull. The book was a best seller through Christian Europe, the last edition appearing in 1905. One can so easily imagine generations of Christian schoolmasters, shaking children’s heads for evidence of sin, while taking care not to shake their own. Such teachings are the most extreme nonsense, with no scientific foundation at all. They contrast starkly not only with modern ideas but also with ancient ones. Galen had suggested that both sexual intercourse and masturbation were healthy practices, an idea adopted by the Muslim philosopher Avicenna (died 1037). Johann von Wesel, a priest who studied and advocated these ideas, was convicted of heresy at Mainz in 1479 by an Inquisitor, and died two years later under sentence of imprisonment for life.

Gynaecology, practised only by men in the nineteenth century, suffered especially badly from the ignorance fostered by the Church. Hysteria was believed to be caused by ambulatory wombs, and could thus be suffered only by women. The only evidence for this was the word’s etymology. It followed that hysteria could be cured by preventing the womb from misbehaving, for example by operating to remove the ovaries. Women’s bodies were still mysterious and presented plenty of scope for original research. J. Marion Finns perfected techniques of vaginal surgery on black slave women. Surgeons like Isaac Baker Brown treated women for unlikely complaints like gyromania. Any woman displaying “a morbid desire to spin round and round, her waist encircled by a male arm” stood to be diagnosed as suffering from gyromania. Such women, who sound to modern ears to have been no more afflicted than any keen dancer, were treated surgically by cutting into the muscles of their calves and buttocks. Baker Brown also practised clitorectomies — that favourite treatment advocated by Christians opposed to the sin of female masturbation.

The Church had no problem with surgical techniques to keep women’s sexuality in check, but they were vocal in opposing real medical advances, for example in anaesthesia. Anaesthesia was prohibited on the grounds that if God meant us to suffer, then we must accept the suffering, and not seek to ameliorate it. In 1847 the Edinburgh obstetrician Sir James Simpson managed to introduce the use of chloroform in Scotland, despite opposition from the Churches. A few years later, in 1853, Queen Victoria and her physician John Snow were much criticised for defying the Queen’s religious advisers by using chloroform during her confinement for her seventh child, Prince Leopold. As theologians pointed out, God had expressed His view on the matter to Eve in no uncertain terms :

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children … Genesis 4:16

God wanted women to suffer in childbirth, so it was wrong for physicians to interfere. The Roman Church countenanced even more suffering than the Anglican one.

Between 1587 and 1977 the Roman Church taught that a man may not marry unless he could impregnate his wife. The reason was that the prime purpose of marriage was reproduction. Thus for example a eunuch could not contract a valid marriage. Because of medieval ignorance about the mechanics of reproduction, there has never been a similar rule about women. Several times during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was ruled that a woman could marry even though her reproductive organs had been surgically removed. Theologians apparently believed that women could conceive without wombs. Another strange idea formulated by some Christian physicians in medieval times was that women produce semen just like men. There was no evidence for this, but the theory was accepted in Church circles, even after the discovery of the ovum in 1827. Roman Catholic theologians were still writing about female semen well into the twentieth century.

Anatomy was still restricted by the availability of cadavers, demand for which had expanded as the the influence of the Church started to decline and scientific activities became ever more popular. A black market arose in cadavers and body parts, leading to the creation of the professions of body-snatcher and in Scotland professional murderer (in 1828, Burke and Hare murdered 16 people in order to sell their cadavers to anatomists). The resulting public outcry led to the passage of the Anatomy Act 1832, which increased the legal supply of cadavers for dissection.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James McDonald is Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in Britain, and holds a number of professional qualifications. He also holds an MA in mathematics from Oxford University, and an MSc in Operational Research from Sussex University. He lives in the South of France. His newest book is Beyond Belief: Two Thousand Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church (Garnet Publishing, 2009). His website is

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