I was in my late twenties before I realised that the practice of Modern Medicine was both a science and an art, with a dash of the supernatural thrown in to spice up the mix. I had my suspicions when an elderly male doctor tried to prescribe sedatives for my sinus headaches; I went to another doctor who told me to take mild antihistamines and cured the headaches. My suspicions were confirmed when both my sister and a good friends were told their medical conditions were nervous complaints, and both sought second opinions; one suffers from terrible endometriosis and the other had an ovarian cancer the size of a grapefruit. This was latter half of the 20th century, so imagine what it must have been like in the 19th century.
Medicine was still finding its way from the infamous barber surgeons and private physicians (who were mainly academics). Bad blood and bad air was still considered the cause of many an ailment. At the start of the Victorian era, cupping, leeches and balancing the humours were still part of the medical playbook. The rise of science meant their was a corresponding increase in scientific medical research, which eventually led to better diagnostics and much more effective medicines and therapies. However, the increase in new technologies also increased the number of weird and wonderful attempts as medicine was still feeling its way. It also led to a proliferation of quacks and their remedies designed to part both the desperately ill and the hypochondriacs from their money.
Some of the innovations made during in Victorian medicine can give you nightmares. The three instruments above are just some of the horrors that were invented. Some of the instruments were so scary that just looking at them makes me shiver, so I can’t imagine how the patients must have felt when approached by a surgeon carrying one. No wonder this is the era when the science of anaesthesia was discovered.
Many of the new therapy machines looked like Medieval torture devices, even though they invented with the very best intentions. There is a lot of opportunity for a writer to use such gadgets to add suspense and conflict into the life of the protagonist. Imagine having to suffer under a well-intentioned doctor who was subjecting your hero to these implements. How much worse would it be if the doctor wasn’t well intentioned?
If you are writing about medical matters in a Steampunk narrative, a little research will turn up a whole spectrum of wild and wonderful gadgets. You can find an implement to symbolize just about any disorder. As an example, a woman with ‘no voice’ might be having tonsil trouble, but might be afraid to speak because she has seen a tonsil guillotine. She has to overcome her fear to find her voice and her power. To relate this back to the modern era … a person should always be prepared to get a second opinion.