When you’re next in the dentist’s chair, wincing at the sound of the drill, give thanks to the medical pioneers who made it possible for you to feel no pain. They are 19th-century American dentists Horace Wells and William Morton, who experimented on themselves and others with an array of drugs in the hope of finding something that would reduce the excruciating pain of Victorian dentistry.


Both men ended up disgraced, penniless, suicidal addicts – but we’re all the beneficiaries of their obsession. By 1853, when Queen Victoria admitted to giving birth to her eighth child under the influence of chloroform, anaesthesia had become mainstream. I learnt about these anaesthethia pioneers a few years ago from a surgeon friend of mine, and their stories made me keen to learn more about our medical history in general.

I soon discovered that Wells and Morton were not alone. Many of the medical treatments we take for granted now were discovered, devised and perfected during an incredible 20-year period of medical history that began in the 1840s with the first successful operations done under anaesthesia. And there were advances in surgery, germ theory, nursing and psychiatry that are just as astonishing.

The middle of the Victorian century, that great era of energy and innovation, was populated with a frankly lunatic bunch of pioneering doctors who were fighting to advance medicine in many areas for the benefit of all. They were often radical young men who pushed against the religious and medical establishments of the time, risking their lives and reputations in the process.

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These pioneering Victorian doctors have become the basis for my new BBC2 comedy Quacks – a show that hopefully reveals the wild, energetic nature of the era and the doctors involved in the same way that my show Rev revealed what it’s like to be an urban priest.

But it wasn’t just men. Nursing as a profession was bolstered by the Crimean War, and the first woman doctor appeared – Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Her story is worth a TV series in its own right.

She fought relentlessly and ingeniously against the prejudices of the time until, through a unique combination of medical brilliance and sheer determination, she became the first qualified woman doctor in 1865. She trained through the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries – because they were the only medical society at that time that had forgotten to dictate in their rules that you couldn’t be a woman.

Garrett Anderson set up her own GP practice but initially found it very difficult as so few patients wanted to be treated by a woman. It only was thanks to a large outbreak of cholera that some people had no choice but to discard their prejudices and seek her help.

The medical history of the Victorian period is lurid, dramatic, entertaining and frequently shocking. This is an era when, on the one hand, eager crowds came to watch amputations by a star surgeon and, on the other hand, physicians refused to physically touch their patients, and women were required to have modesty dolls on which they could indicate where their pains were.


Robert (Rory Kinnear, top), Duke of Bedford (Nicholas Blane) in Quacks

It was an age when many people, not just pioneering doctors, were sniffing, smoking, snorting and drinking a whole variety of freely available drugs. Strait-laced Victorians loved cutting loose by inhaling ether fumes at parties and losing basic motor control – to the great amusement of everyone involved.

Helium and giggle gas (nitrous oxide) parties were also popular among wealthy Victorians. So it seemed to me to be in the spirit of the times to tackle these stories through a raucous, near-the-bone comedy, rather than a straight drama.

A colourful, period medical comedy full of misbehaviour and pathos, great discoveries and lethal mistakes. But one that is also authentic to the times and faithful to the extraordinary people who changed medicine for ever.

Quacks is on Tuesday 10.00pm BBC2

Find out the real cases that inspired Quacks on the next page...

The stars of surgery


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.


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.


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.


Quacks is on Tuesday 10.00pm BBC2