Dorothea Erxleben, The First Female Doctor In Germany

Born in Quedlinburg in 1715, Dorothea Christiane Erxleben née Leporin was the first female doctor in Germany. It’s an achievement that wouldn’t have been possible without the support of her dad. Unlike most men of his time, Christian Leporin, a doctor himself, disagreed with the custom of letting women languish at home. If they showed any inclination for it, they should be allowed to study and work, the doctor thought.

So, when his daughter Dorothea showed a vivacious intelligence and love for medicine at an early age, Christian taught her the basics. She later was sent, with her brother Tobias, to study medicine privately. But a university degree was needed to complete both their educations in the field. Tobias applied, and was accepted, at the University of Halle without problems. But that door was shut to Dorothea. Women just didn’t go to university.

Not one to be deterred, she petitioned, with the full support of her father, Frederick the Great for women’s right to study at university. Frederick, intrigued by her petition and arguments, granted her a dispensation to attend the University of Halle. She did well, but when her brother was called into the army, she didn’t feel like continuing her studies alone.

So, she put her studies on hold and married Christian Erxleben, a widower with five children. Dorothea gave birth to four more. Yet, she still found the time to practise medicine alongside her father. Together, they would treat the poor for very little money.

Dorothea’s work was tolerated as long as her father was alive. But when she kept practising medicine alone after his death, she attracted the ire of those who thought it was immoral and improper for women to do this kind of work. A female doctor was an abomination. Her place was at home with her husband and children, they argued.

Her colleagues, all male, fought hard to make her stop. They argued that since women couldn’t hold office by law, they couldn’t practise medicine as well. Some went even as far as accusing her of quackery and demand she sit an examination. The rector of the University of Halle, believing that holding public office and practising medicine were two completely different things, allowed Dorothea to take her final exams and graduate.

Thus, Dorothea became the first licenced female doctor in Germany. Among her clients, she counted noblewomen such as Elizabeth, Princess of Holstein, but she never stopped taking care of the poor. She also wrote on the subject of women’s education and the obstacles that prevented them from studying. But few, much to Dorothea’s frustration, had the courage to defy conventions like she had done. Dorothea died in the same city she was born, on 13 June 1762.

19th Century Remedies For Contagious Fevers

In the early part of the nineteenth century, contagious fevers were one of the most common causes of death. Because of poor hygienic and environmental conditions, these diseases spread rapidly and there was only so little medicine and science could do at the time. But what did doctors prescribe to cure people and stop the dissemination of the illness? A medical authority in Edinburgh recommended the following remedies for contagious fevers:

1. As few persons as possible should be employed in attending upon the sick. The sphere of the action of contagion being in general very limited (perhaps to a few feet), a great deal of the risk of infection may be avoided by the attendants being aware of this circumstance, and therefore, though in the same apartment, taking care not to stand long very near to the sick person. They ought also to avoid breathing over the person that is ill, that they may not inhale the vapour arising from his body, and therefore should turn their backs to him as much as possible. When near him, a handkerchief moistened with vinegar may be kept to the nose and mouth; where there is a free circulation of air, they should stand to the windward. The infected should be approached as little as possible in the morning, as the contagion is then more concentrated, and then also absorption more readily takes place. Those who wait upon the sick, or have any intercourse with them, ought to undergo daily ablution with cold water.

2. A constant and free circulation of air should be kept up through the apartment by means of proper ventilation. The greatest attention to cleanliness in every respect ought to be observed. All superfluous furniture should be removed from the chamber of the sick, and likewise clothes, especially those which are woollen, as these are found to attract and retain contagious matter forcibly.

3. As nothing has been found so efficacious as fumigation by means of the vapour of nitrous acid, as recommended by Drs Johnstone and C Smyth, this should be constantly resorted to. The following is the method of practising it:- Take half an ounce of vitriolic acid, and put it into a cup, saucer, pipkin, or other earthen vessel, and warm it by placing it over a lamp, or in heated sand; then take one ounce of powdered nitre, and add a little of it from time to time to the warm acid: as it is added, red fumes will rise, which are to be diffused through the apartment by carrying the apparatus to different parts of it. Several such vessels may be employed and placed in various parts of the chamber, according to its size. One may suffice where the room is not very large. The process may be repeated several times a day. These fumes do not prove injurious, and are breathed with impunity by the sick and attendants, only occasioning at first a slight and temporary coughing. The instant any individual in a family is suspected to be attacked with fever, fumigation and ventilation ought immediately to be had recourse to, in order to prevent the propagation of the infection.

4. Clothes belonging to an infected person, or clothes or furniture suspected to be at all impregnated with any contagious matter, ought to be washed and fumigated before being used.

The author also expresses his opinion about amulets that were thought by some people to have healing properties..

As to the amulets worn by many individuals, containing camphor, &c. they can only be useful by inspiring confidence; but by inspiring a confidence beyond their merits, they may prevent the adoption of those means that are of real utility.

Further reading:
Repository of arts, literature, fashions &c, July 1817


Economy Of Bethlem Hospital

Bethlem Hospital, which is short for Bethlehem Hospital, is the world’s oldest institution for mental illness. It was founded in London in 1337 and although it already admitted some mentally ill patients from 1357, the treatment of these unfortunate souls will become the sole focus of the institution only years later. But Bethlem Hospital wasn’t just a place where you could lock mental people up for life like it may at first be thought. They actually tried to cure their patients. However, the purpose of this post is not to talk about their treatment (that deserve its own post) but about some particulars of the internal economy and rules. Who was admitted? How much did the hospital charge? And who could visit? The Repository of arts, literature, Fashions etc, August 1817 answers these questions for their readers:

This hospital is designed for the admission of all poor lunatics, except cripples and such as are afflicted with certain bodily diseases. Upon security being given that they shall be taken away when required, and have clothes found them, all admissible patients, except those from parishes and public offices, are admitted without fee or expense. Parishes and public offices pay three guineas for each, and enter into the same engagements. For incurables must be paid a deposit of five pounds, and nine shillings a week, besides their clothing; but if sent by poor friends, the weekly payment is reduced to six shillings. Patients remain till cured, or for twelve months, when they are to be discharged, unless there be then a prospect of cure.

According to the rules of this institution, no person whatever, except governors, or those in company with a governor, is to be permitted to view the hospital and patients; but the president or treasurer may give written orders for the admission of any member of either House of Parliament at convenient hours. The keepers and servants are forbidden to receive any fee or gratuity whatever, either from visitors or others, on pain of dismission. The official return of the state of this hospital as delivered to the lord mayor. according to custom. on Easter Monday last. was as follows:

Remaining in the hospital, 1815 118
Buried last year 8
Cured and discharged last year 102
Patients under cure 115
Incurable 81

Further reading:
Repository of arts, literature, Fashions etc, August 1817

Nineteenth Century Remedies For Ulcerated Sore Throats, Burns And Scalds

The October 1817 issue of the Repository of arts, literature, fashions &c, offered some advice to its readers about how to treat ulcerated sore throats, burns and scalds:


Drop some good brandy on a piece of refined-lump sugar, till it has absorbed as much as it will contain, which suffer to remain in the mouth till it be gradually dissolved. Repeat the same four or five times a day, and in the course of a few days the ulcers will wholly disappear.


A medical writer in one of the Bath papers, in speaking of the best remedies for burns and scalds, which are to be procured instantly in most houses, states, that oil of turpentine is an excellent application; but this is not always at hand. Next to this in effect are the strongest spirits that can be procured, as aether, spirits of wine, brandy, rum, gin, &c. or, in the absence of these, vinegar. These should be applied by means of folded linen cloths to every kind of burn, and to scalds before the skin begins to rise. Soap dissolved in water is likewise a good application.

In proof of the efficacy of spirits, the following case is given: – At a respectable inn in the neighbourhood of Bath, a female servant, in taking a ham from the boiler, fell down, and was scalded in a dreadful manner, her neck and body being literally scarified: applications of cloths well soaked in brandy were immediately resorted to, and proved almost miraculously efficacious, so much so, that when a surgeon, who had been sent for, arrived in about an hour after the accident happened, he said nothing could improve the appearances; he declined ordering any thing but a continuance in the same process, and in a few days the poor girl was quite recovered, and soon after scarcely a vestige, or even appearance of the accident remained.

Pulverised chalk, mixed with whites of eggs to the consistence of cream, frequently applied to prevent its congealing, is also declared to be an excellent remedy for burns or scalds.

Further reading:
Repository of arts, literature, fashions &c, October 1817