Half-Life of Facts: Medicine (Hygiene)

By Claire Layton

In this series of artifacts of the week, we will examine the paradox that knowledge is in fact tentative in particularly consistent ways, through a number of examples right here in the house. We will trace how we come to understand particular things as ‘truth,’ and the importance of critical thought and openness to the precariousness of fact. The mission here is twofold, also acting as an example of the potential for valuable and relevant research within a historical library and archival collection; to not regard a museum as a static entity.

Changes in notions of hygiene are evident in the history of the Hillary House itself. In the 1890s, when Robert Michael Hillary took over his father’s practice, the walls in the consulting room and dispensary were painted white to comply with the contemporary understandings of hygiene connected with germ theory and the appearance of cleanliness. The handwashing station in the corner of the consulting room also indicates practices of hygiene associated with medicine. People were looking for reasons why diseases, like the black plague, were spreading and how to decrease the effects, they found that frequent hand-washing in warm water, warm wine and in vinegar helped with the reduction of the spread of certain diseases. They also found that keeping the surroundings cleaner helped too, which explains the desire for light-coloured walls. An American surgeon named W.H. Halsted developed ‘aseptic surgery’ by using rubber gloves and ‘scrubbing up,’ which was used by the Hillary doctors, as well as Dr. Strange, which allowed for surgeons, by the end of the century, to regularly conduct successful internal operations such as appendectomies. This exemplifies the common phenomenon in Victorian medicine of changes in explanations following changes in practices, not the other way around. The overturn of medical ‘fact’ followed the new explanations for why these practices were effective at prevention and then often leading to investigation into cures.

There is a book in the collection, located in the study that attends to the study of hygiene in ­­­­­1886 called A Handbook of Hygiene by George Wilson. One of the ideas of the time that represents an obvious overturn of conventional knowledge is the introduction of the explanation of microorganisms as the cause for cholera, diverging from the popular notion that bad smells caused disease. The practice of cleaning that followed this theory did have the effect of lowering spread of disease, however with advances in science the more accurate reasons why cleanliness had this effect were recognized.

Hygiene is one particular realm of knowledge decay to which everyone must remain alert. The suggestions from medical practitioners keep pace with the proposed half-life of medical facts, every 45 years half of the known concepts will be overturned. Therefore, it is important, once again, to remain diligent to keep informed in the current suggestions and evidence for particular hygienic practices.

The sheer number of books within the combine two Hillary doctors’ medical library indicates the necessity to remain diligently up-to-date with current medical advances. Visit us and take a look for yourself, and see if you can recognize any other examples from the past. If you have any questions about these items in our collection, please inquire or schedule an appointment to work with our curator to find out how other “facts” have changed over time.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Bynum, W.F. (1994). Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge.

Knight, Eliza (07 18 2008) History of Hygiene: Bathing, Teeth Cleaning, Toileting, & Deodorizing. Retrieved 08, 18, 2017, from HistoryUndressed.com: http://www.historyundressed.com/2008/07/history-of-hygiene-bathing-teeth.html

Wilson, George (1886). A Handbook of Hygiene and Sanitary Science. Philadelphia: Blakiston, Son, & Co.