Facts about a Tudor doctor

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Facts about a Tudor doctor
The Tudor doctor had only herbs, bloodletting and leeches to help him. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Monarchs of the House of Tudor ruled England between 1485 and 1603. While there were many advances in learning, the arts and society during this period, medicine had progressed little since the middle ages. The average life expectancy for someone in Tudor times was 40 years, although this figure does include a high level of infant mortality. The Tudor doctor had to contend with a range of fatal illnesses with very little knowledge or skills to help him.

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Tudor illnesses

Common illnesses during Tudor times were the sweating sickness (possibly influenza) and the plague, carried by fleas on rats and other vermin. There were also epidemics of smallpox. Many women died of puerperal fever from infections contracted during childbirth. Diet-based conditions included scurvy. This was particularly prevalent in the rich, who ate expensive meat rather than cheap vegetables.

Types of doctor

Physicians were university-educated, with knowledge of astronomy, astrology, geometry, mathematics, music and philosophy. Their services were expensive and they were therefore available only to the wealthy. Most people had to make do with the local barber/surgeon, who would pull teeth, lance boils, let blood and conduct emergency surgery, with skills often learned on the battlefield. Below the surgeon in rank was the apothecary, who made up herbal remedies. The local wise woman, with her mix of folk remedies and possibly genuine knowledge of herbs, may have been the only recourse for the rural poor.


A diagnosis was usually reached after inspecting the patient's urine. The doctor would interpret the urine sample's look, smell, and even taste. The patient did not have to be present for this procedure: a servant would often deliver a specimen in a "jordan." In addition, a horoscope would be drawn up. The position of the stars were thought to influence specific parts of the body.


Whatever the diagnoses, the usual treatment was purging the patient in some way. What passed for medical knowledge was based on the teachings of Aristotle and his theory of the four "humours" of the body: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood. Illness was thought to be the result of an imbalance of the humours. Purging or bloodletting, sometimes using leeches, were popular ways of attempting to restore balance.

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