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Of all the technological advancements made in society from the 18th century to today, many of the most important has occurred within the world of public healthcare. While other advancements have certainly made the general quality of life much higher through improved transportation, production, and communication, the leaps and bounds made in medicine have perhaps done the most to make life better. Public health has seen massive improvements since the 18th century and looking back to how things were can help us to realize just how fortunate we are to live in the modern era. 

New Technology For Nurses

The medical practices of the 18th century were a far cry from what we are used to today. Many medical professionals subscribed to the idea that an imbalance in the body’s four humors — blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm — was the cause of most ailments. This archaic belief was a holdover from ancient Greek and Roman medicinal practice and one of the main forms of treatment by both doctors and nurses was blood-letting through the use of leeches. While herbal medicines were used in the Americas to great effect, many European doctors and nurses administered volatile concoctions that often did more harm than good in an attempt to treat ailments.


In the American colonies, qualified nurses were somewhat of a rarity due to a low rate of compensation. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington commissioned the development of field hospitals to treat sick troops with only one nurse for every 10 soldiers. Nurses in the 18th century also had to contend with viral epidemics of yellow fever, malaria, smallpox, and typhus, often overwhelming the communities that were affected.


The nurses of the 18th century had very little in the way of technology to combat infection or treat illness. The iron lung and the first sphygmomanometer wouldn’t be invented until the 19th century, and even then they were only available to nurses working within hospitals. Modern nurses can rely on advanced technologies that help them to monitor a patient’s vital signs, mobile apps that put important patient data at their fingertips, and even implantable devices can administer medications to patients.

Extended Lifespans

The life expectancy rate throughout history has been, for the most part, brutally brief. Up until the 18th century, life expectancy for everyone from hunter-gatherers to those living within more stable societies ranged from 25 to 37 years old. However, in the 18th century, the life expectancy rate began to climb steadily and the child mortality rate tumbled. While much of this can be attributed to improved economies and more nutritious diets, advances in public healthcare measures did an enormous amount to improve lifespans.


Improved public sanitation practices led to a drastic drop in infectious diseases and the development of a smallpox vaccine in 1796 were some of the biggest contributors to extended lifespans. As hygiene became more important, fewer people fell ill due to the spread of unknown pathogens which wouldn’t even be discovered until the 19th century. Cities in the 18th century were often at higher risk of being affected by viral epidemics as the close quarters and lack of sanitary sewage disposal systems exposed people more readily to harmful pathogens.


The trend of increasing life spans has continued steadily since the 18th century due to even further advances in medical technology and public health initiatives. There is still a rather large gap in life expectancy between different populations due to socio-economic factors and even where someone lives, but overall life spans are continuing to increase. Clean air and water initiatives, as well as public awareness campaigns and widespread vaccinations, are helping people to live longer, more productive lives than those who lived in the 18th century.

Advanced Preventative Care

Another benefit of modern medicine versus medicine in the 18th century is a more driven focus on preventative medicine instead of reactive medicine. Because of the increases in life expectancy starting in the 18th century, people are living much longer, well into their 80s and 90s, which in turn means that damage done over time mounts up. Eighteenth-century seniors were generally cared for by family within the home, but modern seniors try to preserve independence for much longer and preventative healthcare is one way in which they are able to extend their health.


The concept of preventative healthcare basically didn’t exist in the 18th century. The idea that one’s behavior today could affect their health years down the line, like how smoking and obesity can lead directly to the development of deadly diseases, was unheard of. Now, however, people are beginning to fully understand the implications of what happens when they don’t take care of their bodies.


Poor dental care and tobacco use can lead to periodontal disease, obesity can lead to heart disease and cancer, and forgoing sunscreen can lead to the growth of deadly tumors. Now, these are all recognized as fact, but in the 18th century, pinpointing the exact cause of a disease years later was nigh impossible. Modern medicine has introduced preventative care in a way that works to help people live longer and spend more time in their homes than at the hospital.


Public health is a relatively new concept, but we can point out its origins in the 18th century. Nurse’s need for advanced technology, the improvement of life expectancy rates, and even preventative health initiatives like improved sanitation practices can all be traced to 18th-century roots. There is no telling how far public health will go in the future, but we should always recognize where it started.