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Public Health in Early Modern Britain

Public Health in Early Modern Britain

The Early Modern era was a time of great change in many areas of society, politics, and economics. Medicine was not an exception to this and was influenced by several key individuals and movements like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

So, what was public health like in the Early Modern era, and how did it change throughout the period? Let's find out!

History of Public Health in Early Modern Britain

Here is a brief timeline showing the most important events for public health in Early Modern Britain.

DateEvent
1543Vesalius published his work on the human body.
1564Pare published his Treatise on Surgery.
1628William Harvey published his work on blood circulation in the body.
1665The Great Plague of London.
1666The Great Fire of London.
1680s - 1800The Enlightenment began.
1700 - 1750sThe Gin Craze.

The Condition of Public Health in Early Modern Britain

The health of the early modern environment had changed little from the medieval era. Although some monarchs had introduced laws to clean up the towns and cities of early modern Britain, they had very limited success. Overall, the environment remained largely unhygienic.

Public Health Infrastructure

The Great Plague of London in 1665 highlighted the insufficiency of England's public health system. Towns and cities had not built proper systems for waste disposal, like sewers, and clean water was non-existent for the common man. Equally, there was little in the way of community health support.

The 16th century Reformation had removed the Catholic Church, which had previously been the source of medical care for many people. Hospitals still were not places where people were treated for illnesses; they acted more as guest houses.

Medical Practices

In the early modern era, the same types of medical practitioners existed:

  • Physicians: Usually university-educated men, physicians were employed by those who could afford them. They observed and diagnosed but did not make remedies or perform surgery.
  • Apothecaries: Mixed remedies, usually according to a physician's instruction. Their remedies would be used by all types of people. They sold them out of their shops.
  • Barber-Surgeons: Hairdressers performed minor surgeries due to their experience with sharp blades. Considered the lowest form of medical practitioner, they performed routine procedures like bleeding and teeth-pulling and more serious things like removing gallbladder stones.

Public Health in Early Modern Britain Apothecary StudySmarterFig. 1 - An engraving of an early modern apothecary

Causes of Illness in Early Modern Britain

Beliefs about what caused illnesses did not change much in the early modern era.

The Theory of the Four Humours was popular at the beginning of this period, but belief amongst medical professionals quickly declined towards the 18th century. However, it was still a popular explanation amongst the common people and influenced home remedies.

Miasma (the theory that bad air causes illness) remained popular for explaining diseases, particularly when an epidemic struck. Without the knowledge of germs, miasma remained the best explanation.

The Theory of the Four Humours

The theory that the body is composed of four humours - blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. It was believed that if these humours were imbalanced, you would become ill.

Miasma TheoryThe theory that disease was spread by bad air, which could be contaminated through rotting organic matter.

Common Problems of Public Health in Early Modern Britain

Early Modern Britain had many public health issues throughout the period.

Epidemic Diseases

Below is a table of common diseases present in the Early Modern period.

DiseaseExplanation
DysenteryDysentery is an intestinal infection that could be lethal. It thrived in early modern Britain as it spread via contaminated food and water.
SyphilisSyphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that came to Europe in the late 15th century and then spread like wildfire. It was an incredibly common disease in the early modern period and often had very nasty effects.
Sweating SicknessSweating sickness is a disease that was prevalent in Britain during the 1500s. So named due to its main symptom of excessive sweating, its cause was unknown, and it was often fatal, with many sufferers dying within 24 hours of presenting symptoms.
SmallpoxSmallpox is an infamous disease that afflicted many people in Europe during the early modern era. It could be fatal and also cause blindness and permanent scarring. It was suppressed by the invention of the smallpox vaccine in the 18th century and has now been eradicated.
InfluenzaInfluenza is a common disease that had several epidemics in early modern Europe. It was milder than the other diseases mentioned but could still be fatal, especially if the person was malnourished.

The Great Plague, 1665

In 1665, a plague epidemic broke out in London, killing nearly a quarter of London's population. There had been several other plague outbreaks before, notably at the end of the 1500s. Nevertheless, it was a disaster and highlighted the poor state of public health.

Did you know? Though the recorded number of deaths during the Great Plague stands at around 69,000, it is suspected that over 100,000 people died out of London's population of 460,000.

The Gin Craze

At the beginning of the 18th century, two very important things happened:

  • Food prices dropped, and incomes rose.
  • Gin became easier to produce.

However, the outcome was an epidemic of drunkenness amongst London's citizens. It became a huge social issue, being cited as an explanation for the rise in crime and laziness, as well as poor health. The government eventually had to pass legislation to kill the gin trade.

Public Health in Early Modern Britain The gin craze StudySmarterFig. 2 - 'Gin Lane' by William Hogarth. This was supposed to be a reflection of the impact of the Gin Craze on London society

Quackery

In the early modern era, there was a phenomenon of people who would set themselves up as street sellers and try to sell their own concoctions as bona fide medicines that could cure any range of illnesses. The medicines they promoted had no health benefits, but they encouraged people to buy them so they would make money. This practice was known as 'quackery'.

Quackery

The promotion of fraudulent health practices and medicines by people in order to make money.

The term 'quack' became an insult to medical practitioners in the later early modern period.

Improvement of Public Health in Early Modern Britain

Public health in Early Modern Britain changed considerably over the centuries - in this section, we will look at key individuals who caused these changes and what they meant for British society.

Key Figures

Here, we will look at three of the key figures in the improvement of public health in Early Modern Britain.

Vesalius

Andreas Vesalius was a Belgian physician who made huge contributions to the field of anatomy. He became a professor of medicine at Padua university at the age of just 22, and he insisted that his students perform medical dissections - something that had previously been banned by the Church.

His 1543 work, On the Fabric of the Human Body, gave new drawings of the human anatomy and actually proved some of Galen's theories wrong. This was quite important, as Galen's theories had been trusted for the past 1,500 years.

Did you know? Galen's theories were so important because they were the dominant medical theories accepted by the Church, which had held a monopoly on printing for nearly the whole of the Medieval period. This changed after the invention of the printing press in 1436 and allowed theories like those of Vesalius to be spread by anyone who could afford a press.

Paré

Ambroise Paré was a French military surgeon who came up with many new ideas about surgery. He suggested new forms of antiseptics and introduced ligatures to tie off blood vessels in order to stop blood loss. Whilst surgery still remained a very dangerous procedure, Paré's work helped form the foundations for later surgical advancements.

Harvey

William Harvey was an English physician who is known for discovering the principle of blood circulation. Previously, doctors had believed that blood was made in the liver. Harvey proved that blood circulated around the body and that the heart acted as a pump.

Did you know? Harvey served as a physician to Kings James I and Charles I!

Sydenham

Known as the 'English Hippocrates', Thomas Sydenham was a hugely influential figure in early modern medicine. He followed Hippocrates' idea of observing the patient, noting the symptoms, and then providing a cure for each symptom individually instead of trying to treat the disease as a whole.

From this, he believed that instead of an imbalance of humours, people could suffer from the same diseases and that some diseases were similar.

Public Health in Early Modern Britain Rembrandt Anatomy lessonStudySmarterFig. 3 - 'The anatomy lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp' by Rembrandt

The Impact of the Renaissance

The Renaissance was a period of 'rebirth' in Europe, with a championing of new ideas about art, music, culture, and science. Medicine was included in this, and medical knowledge began to pull away from the old traditions of the medieval era.

Did you know? While the exact beginning and end dates for the Renaissance are debated, it is accepted as generally occurring from around 1400-1600.

The figures mentioned above all lived and worked during the Renaissance and were key to developing new ideas about medicine and the body.

The invention of the printing press in the 1440s allowed medical knowledge to be more accessible to those who wanted to learn. Equally, it allowed new ideas to flourish as the production of texts was no longer solely in control of the Church.

This also led to experiments in creating new drugs and medicines to help treat people. A new remedy was antimony, which cured French King Louis XIV, and it became very popular. It must be said, however, that on a local level, many people still used trusted herbal remedies.

Antimony

A grey metallic element. It was described as a medical ingredient as far back as Roman times - now, we know that it can be poisonous and cause a lot of harm to the human body. Administering antimony would make the patient vomit, but it was effective at treating parasites until its discontinuation in the 1970s.

The Impact of the Enlightenment

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment spread to Britain - it was an intellectual movement that focused on the use of reason to make advances in politics, economics, and science.

Public health and medicine were affected by the Enlightenment, below is an overview of some notable changes.

  • Medicine became more professionalised as people who wanted to be doctors had to go through more rigorous training.

  • Hospitals became places where sick people were treated, and more hospitals were built thanks to the charity of wealthy people.

  • There were new inventions of surgical tools and surgical procedures.

  • Operating theatres opened, and dissections became less taboo, allowing for more detailed studies of human anatomy.

Public Health in Early Modern Britain Guy's Hospital London StudySmarterFig. 4 - A drawing of Guy's Hospital, Southwark, London

Infrastructure

The way town and cities were laid out, as well as housing conditions, had a significant impact on public health.

The Great Fire of London

Peculiarly, the Great Fire of London in 1666 actually helped improve public health! After the fire, the city had to be rebuilt. To prevent another fire from ever spreading that quickly through the city again, all the houses were built further and apart, and the streets were made wider.

This meant that people were living further apart and that there was more space; therefore, diseases could not spread so quickly!

New Houses

When new houses began to be built in the 1700s, they were built out of brick rather than wood. This was beneficial to public health as brick houses were more insulated and warmer, thereby keeping people healthier. Equally, materials like wattle and daub, which attracted rats and lice, were no longer used, which made the houses cleaner.

Public Health in Early Modern Britain - Key takeaways

  • Public health in early modern Britain was not brilliant. The levels of personal and public hygiene were not very good.
  • There was not much public health infrastructure, and towns and cities were not very clean.
  • There were improvements thanks to movements like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
  • Key figures in these were Thomas Sydenham, Andreas Vesalius, Ambroise Paré, and William Harvey, who helped further medical knowledge and challenged previous, long-held ideas about medicine and the human body.
  • Public health infrastructure gradually improved after the Great Fire of London (1666) and into the Enlightenment.
  • Overall public health had improved by the end of the early modern period, but there was still a long way to go.

References

  1. Fig. 4 - 'Guy's Hospital, Southwark; the entrance courtyard, with a patient being carried on a stretcher' (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guy%27s_Hospital,_Southwark;_the_entrance_courtyard,_with_a_pa_Wellcome_V0013699.jpg) by Wellcome Images (http://wellcomeimages.org/) licensed under CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Frequently Asked Questions about Public Health in Early Modern Britain

Public health in early modern Britain was quite similar to the medieval era as the environment remained largely unhygienic. However, some developments were made in both medical science and public infrastructure which saw improvements in public health in this period.

Some common diseases in the Early Modern period include: dysentery, syphilis, sweating sickness, smallpox, and influenza. Medical knowledge had not developed enough to provide suitable treatments for these diseases, meaning that should someone contract the disease, they were likely to be very ill and potential die.

Arguably the major problem for public health was the lack of medical knowledge. Millenia-old theories, such as that of Hippocrates and Galen, were still widely believed by the general public, meaning that public hygiene was pretty poor and allowed diseases to spread easily. Some key figures, such as Vesalius, Paré, Harvey and Sydenham helped to develop medical knowledge in this period, but their advancements were slow to take with the general public.

One of the best improvements for public health in early modern Britain came out of the jaws of tragedy. The Great Fire of London in 1666 meant that parts of the city had to be rebuilt. In doing this, houses were spread further apart, streets made wider, and different building materials were used. This helped to reduce the spread of diseases as people were more spread out, and houses were better insulated and less likely to carry disease through old materials such as wattle and daub.

In Early Modern Britain, many people still believed in the theories of ancient physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen - notably the Theory of the Four Humours and Miasma Theory. This meant that public health suffered at the beginning of the period as people did not have the knowledge to properly tackle public health crises. These theories were followed by some physicians, meaning ill people were not treated properly. Furthermore, quackery meant that people were given bogus treatments for illnesses too. 
Upon the medical advances of key figures such as Vesalius, Paré, Harvey, and Sydenham, public health began to shift to the lens of medical science, allowing for more effective treatments and understanding of the human body to improve public health towards the end of the Early modern period.

Final Public Health in Early Modern Britain Quiz

Question

Which of these was not a common epidemic disease in early modern Britain?

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Answer

Cholera.

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Question

The epidemic of public drunkenness that occurred in London during the 1700s was called...

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Answer

The Gin Craze.

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Question

Who would you go to if you wanted to buy a remedy in early modern Britain?

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Answer

An apothecary.

Show question

Question

If you were selling fraudulent remedies in early modern Britain, what might you be called?

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Answer

A quack.

Show question

Question

Which key figure promoted clinical observation and treating individual symptoms?

Show answer

Answer

Thomas Sydenham.

Show question

Question

Which key figure was a military surgeon and introduced ligatures?

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Answer

Ambroise Paré.

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Question

Which key figure discovered the correct model of blood circulation?

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Answer

William Harvey.

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Question

Which key figure became a university professor at the age of 22 and pioneered new discoveries about human anatomy?

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Answer

Andreas Vesalius.

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Question

Which epidemic happened in London in 1665?

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Answer

Plague.

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Question

Which invention allowed for medical knowledge to become more accessible?

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Answer

The printing press.

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Question

What happened to hospitals during the early modern era?

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Answer

The became exclusively places to treat sick people.

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Question

Which conflict did Thomas Sydenham fight in?

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Answer

The English Civil War.

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Question

Where did Sydenham study?

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Answer

Oxford.

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Question

Thomas Sydenham was well-liked by his fellow physicians.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Which important figure did Sydenham inspire?

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Answer

John Locke.

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Question

What title did Thomas Sydenham earn?

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Answer

The English Hippocrates.

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Question

Thomas Sydenham classified diseases based on ______ .

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Answer

Their symptoms.

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Question

Which of these did Sydenham not introduce?

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Answer

Ligatures.

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Question

What happened to Sydenham's Observationes Medicae?

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Answer

It became a well used medical textbook.

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Question

Where did Sydenham move to study epidemic diseases?

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Answer

London.

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Question

Sydenham wrote the first description of                .

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Answer

Scarlet Fever.

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Question

Which University did Andreas Vesalius become a professor at?

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Answer

University of Padua.

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Question

Complete the sentence: Pare only wanted to perform surgery when it was ____.

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Answer

Necessary.

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Question

True or False: Vesalius thought the best way to learn about anatomy was through human dissection.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Complete the sentence: Pare joined the ___ as a surgeon in 1537. 

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Answer

Army.

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Question

When was Pare's work on surgery published?

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Answer

1545.

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Question

Complete the sentence: The method of tying of blood vessels during surgery is called ___.

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Answer

Ligation.

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Question

True or False: William Harvey was physician to Charles II.

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Answer

False.

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Question

When was William Harvey's work on blood circulation published?

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Answer

1628.

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Question

Complete the sentence: Harvey's worked disproved the theories of ____.

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Answer

Galen.

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Question

True or False: William Harvey was called to examine those accused of witchcraft during the witchcraze.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Gin originated from                   .

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Answer

Holland.

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Question

What was economic protectionism? 

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Answer

An initiative to halt the import of French alcohol and promote gin.

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Question

Bootleggers were approved by the government.

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Answer

False.

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Question

How many legal shops selling gin were there in 1730?

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Answer

7,000.

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Question

Judith Defour killed her daughter and sold her            for gin.

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Answer

Clothes.

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Question

What did the government increase the price of in 1736?

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Answer

Distilling licenses.

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Question

Why did the government repeal the 1736 Act in 1743?

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Answer

It was not working because of the underground gin market.

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Question

What did the government increase imports of to rival gin?

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Answer

Tea.

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Question

When did the Gin Craze end?

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Answer

1757.

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Question

The Gin Craze was caused in part by urbanisation and a new capitalist reality.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Quackery started in Britain.

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Answer

False.

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Question

The 18th century is also referred to as the Age of                         .

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Answer

Enlightenment.

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Question

Which of these is not a type of quackery?

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Answer

Swindler.

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Question

Quacks put on                    for entertainment.

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Answer

medical shows.

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Question

Sometimes quacks pretended to be foreign.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Why did quacks thrive during the Great Plague?

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Answer

Many doctors left London to escape infection.

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Question

William Read advised which royal?

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Answer

Anne.

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Question

The royal antidote against                   .


Complete the quotation.

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Answer

all infection.

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Question

Where did quacks advertise during the eighteenth century?

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Answer

In newspapers.

Show question

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