Rev creator James Wood reveals the real-life Victorian doctors who inspired his new comedy Quacks

The gruesome exploits of Victorian medics are the subject of his new show starring Rory Kinnear and Rupert Everett

The stars of surgery

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Robert Liston (left) was perhaps Britain’s most famous Victorian surgeon. He was a lion of a man, six foot two, strong, with a sharp temper. He devised his own amputating knives and was able to take a leg off in under a minute — in the age before anaesthesia, speed in surgery was everything. His fame was guaranteed when he performed the first major operation in England with anaesthesia in 1846.

His rival in France was Guillaume Dupuytren, who revolutionised surgical education in Paris. As a young man he gained great surgical experience during the wars and riots of the French Revolution and was known to make candles from the fat of cadavers. He was pioneering at cancer tumour removals, the tying of arteries after surgery and the invention of the artificial anus. He took only one holiday in his entire life, to Naples, but didn’t like it and complained the whole time that he ought to be at the hospital. In a world before criminal liability and litigious patients, today’s surgeons would be envious of the uncontested freedom their pioneering forebears had. They’d be less envious of the patient survival rates.


 Meet the alienists

As surgeons and dentists experimented with anaesthesia, early psychiatrists (then called alienists) were starting to wonder whether the treatment of the mentally ill could be improved, too. Rather than chaining them up in barbaric cells and bleeding them, perhaps it might be better if these unfortunate souls were treated with kindness? One could even learn their names.

Initiated by priests and nuns, a new form of experimental “moral therapy” for the mentally ill was taking hold across Europe. Patients were encouraged to do paintings or put on plays or go for a walk in the park.  

Pulling teeth

The Victorian era saw a boom in dentistry due to the explosion of a wealthy middle class and the use of ether and nitrous oxide, which offered pain-free extraction. At the start of the 19th century there were about 40 “tooth pullers” in London. These were unregulated tradesmen who could do a full top-row mouth clearance with a hammer in under a minute. By 1855 London had 350 dentists using the brand-new adjustable dentists’ chairs that had come from the United States, drills (powered by a foot treadle), vulcanite rubber dentures made by Goodyear and fillings made of (oh dear) mercury and silver coins.

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From arsenic to opium

Victorian apothecaries were a cross between a GP clinic and Boots. Run by pharmacists, they sold their own bespoke nostrums — the ingredients of which were closely guarded secrets. Until the Pharmacy Act of 1868, you didn’t need any training or qualifications to be an apothecary. The selling of drugs was unlicensed, and a vast array of poisons and addictive substances were freely available, like arsenic, cannabis, deadly nightshade (which was used in lots of beauty products) and opium. And many of these drugs were also available at the grocer’s or the bookshop.

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Tom Basden as John 

Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne mixture was phenomenally popular. It “relieves pain and calms the system”. No wonder, because one 30ml bottle contained heavy doses of morphine and chloroform, plus cannabis and mint. You could pick it up at the Victorian equivalent of Waterstones. You can still get it today — although the formula has changed, making it much less potent. 

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Quacks is on Tuesday 10.00pm BBC2