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Medicine In Historical Novels, by Anne Perry

Medicine and science meet on many levels, from the purely practical, through the adventurous, all the way to the stuff on the borders, and sometimes breaking them, into religion and morality.

Medicine can jolt you very painfully into a past era when surgery was performed without anaesthetic and speed was everything.  The pain must have been unimaginable.  I like an anaesthetic when I have a tooth drilled, never mind my insides opened up, or my leg sawn off!  I don’t know how anybody survived it, but surprisingly many did.  A great deal was done at home, and when you look at hospital conditions, it was just as well.  Ordinary people knew far more about simple remedies than they seem to now.  Of course some of them were absurd!  Wrapping people in scarlet-coloured flannel because they had scarlet fever!

Others were pretty good, and it is a shame most of us have forgotten them.  Clean water and enough sleep can still help a lot, or at least lay the ground for medicine to work better.

Of course medicine is not an uninterrupted progress, any more than most other things.  The Ancient Egyptians knew how to trepan the brain, and the patient still lived.  They had specially hardened copper surgical instruments we still cannot duplicate!  Other ancient people knew the healing qualities of honey, spider webs and certain moulds – which we forgot and then in some cases rediscovered.

The whole history of medicine is bedevilled by what we may be allowed to learn, and what we may not.  And of course, with who may practise medicine, and who may not!  In Victorian England a woman doctor would be a horror of horrors!  Yet one of the best and most innovative military surgeons was actually a woman!  Always in disguise as a man, of course.  How she pulled that one off, in military service, at war, I have no idea.  Some people must have known, and helped her, surely?

In Medieval Byzantium women were allowed to be physicians and surgeons, but only for other women.  I presume they could in Ireland and England in the 7th and 8th centuries too, since at that time women could be pretty well anything they had the skill for.

Then there is the interesting issue that in Medieval Christian countries, especially around the Mediterranean, Arab and Jewish medicine were based on science, whereas Christian medicine was built on the belief that if you were ill then you must have committed sin.  Confession and repentance would bring healing.  You might consult an Arab or Jewish doctor only with a special dispensation from the Church.  (Which of course Bishops, Cardinals and Popes had!)

There is so much passion, bigotry, terror, pain, love and fear connected to our views on the human body, knowledge about its creation, form and workings, that stories almost write themselves.  Medical discovery and experiment is an entire subject on its own.  Your view has to depend enormously upon whether you, or someone you love, is the patient who is dying, or the possible victim of an experiment which may succeed, or fail!  Or if you are the doctor who may, or may not, have discovered the cure for some terrible disease.  What cost is acceptable?  What experiments are acceptable, what is not?  What is the price of progress?  Is the soul immortal?  What heroic efforts should be made to preserve life at any price, or of any quality?

What are the moral questions involved in the great issues, such as stem cell research, artificial insemination, organ transplant etc.?  Who has the right to decide whether a dead person’s organs should be used or not, or if a child under the age of consent should receive a blood transfusion, if it is against the parents’ religion?  Have they the right to condemn their child to die?

Stories of passion, courage and conscience are boundless!  Make us think, make us care.


Anne Perry’s author website:

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United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

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Writing Historical Novels


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