Adjustable operating table, London, England, 1936-1951
What makes medicine fit for a king?
Historically royalty’s health was of particular importance as they embodied the strength and stability of the nation. Their good health had to be maintained and so they have always had access to the very best medical care - although they were of course considered far too important to be used as guinea pigs in any experimental surgery.
The royals’ personal surgeons
Royal families often had their own personal physicians and surgeons. Galen was surgeon to one of the Roman emperors. In the 1500s, Andreas Vesalius was the physician/surgeon to Emperor Charles V of Spain and Ambroise Paré treated three French kings for a number of conditions. When King Charles II suffered an infected hand in 1685, 12 surgeons rushed to cure him.
The risky business of treating royalty
Treating royalty was a risky business for the surgeon, as he could be blamed if the condition worsened or the patient died. British obstetrician Sir Richard Croft's suicide was blamed on the criticism he received for his failure to use forceps during the horrifying 50-hour labour of Princess Charlotte in 1817 - Charlotte died from complications the day after she gave birth to a stillborn baby boy.
Royal influence on public opinion
Royal families also influenced public attitudes about the acceptability of different kinds of medical treatment. Queen Victoria helped to persuade many women that the anaesthetic gas chloroform was safe for use in childbirth after John Snow administered it to her at the birth of Prince Leopold in 1853 and Princess Beatrice in 1857. As chloroform had been in use for some time it was thought to be safe enough for the queen.
Surgery at the palace
When members of a royal family needed surgery it was usually carried out in the privacy of their own palace. In 1902 Edward VII was operated on for peritonitis by Sir Fredrick Treves in a room overlooking the gardens at Buckingham Palace. Although the surgery was considered risky, Treves had performed many of these surgical procedures before.
The royals enter hospitals as patients
George VI was also operated on at Buckingham Palace, in 1951. Ultimately, however, it was deemed safer for the royal family to have their surgery and medical treatments in hospital. This also reflects the fact that by the 1900s hospitals were seen as the best place for medical procedures, rather than a place of last resort, as they had been in the past. Although Queen Elizabeth II gave birth to the Prince of Wales and Prince Andrew at Buckingham Palace, later royal births, such as those of Princes William and Harry, took place in hospital. Other surgical procedures, including the Queen Mother's hip replacements in the 1990s, were also performed in hospital.
Related Themes and Topics
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Techniques and Technologies:
`Offspring of Royalty', The Lancet, (November 21, 1840)
F Barlow, `The King's Evil', The English Historical Review, V95/374 (January 1980), pp 3-27
P Kandela, `Sketches from The Lancet', 353 (June 5, 1999), p1283
S L. Liston, `Ambroise Paré and the King's Mastoiditis', The American Journal of Surgery, 167 (April 1994), pp 440-2
E Marvick, `The Character of Louis XIII: The Role of his Physician', Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 4/3 (Winter 1974), pp 347-74
D M Potts and W T W Potts, Queen Victoria's Gene: Haemophilia and the Royal Family (Stroud: Sutton, 1999)
M Stearn, `Queen Victoria and Chloroform', Women's Health Medicine, 2/4 (September 2006), pp 8-9
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