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An Overrated Prescription: Death and Disease on the Victorian Sea-front

A Centre for Medical History seminar
Speaker(s)Dr Jennifer Wallis (University of Oxford)
Date15 January 2015
Time13:00 to 15:00
PlaceAmory A115

An Overrated Prescription: Death and Disease on the Victorian Sea-front

The nineteenth-century Briton had a complicated relationship with their external environment, navigating their way through London ‘pea-soupers’, inhaling the stifling air of the crowded factory, and dodging the malodorous drains of city streets. Escaping the ‘bad air’ of the town for the ‘good air’ of the country or seaside had a long tradition, but was transformed into a more scientific undertaking in the second half of the century. Doctors no longer prescribed a simple ‘change of air’, but instead produced detailed directions on the type of resort to be visited according to the ailment suffered from; a trip to the seaside was not to be taken lightly on account of the exciting and bracing effects of the air involved.

And yet, as the seaside filled up with convalescent homes and sanatoria for the consumptive, the scrofulous and the world-weary, many began to doubt its curative properties. Certainly, the marine climate might naturally disagree with some people’s constitutions, but many resorts harboured more general risks: the crowding together of several hundred people in a small place for the holiday season, unsanitary lodging houses, and the stress of long train journeys to and from the coast. This paper examines how recourse to the seaside came to be viewed as an ‘overrated prescription’ by many in the later nineteenth century, with the ‘pestilential atmosphere’ of resorts such as Brighton leading health-seekers to ask whether they might be safer within the supposedly toxic ether of the city.


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