Medical care in English prisons 1770-1850

McRorie Higgins, Peter (2004). Medical care in English prisons 1770-1850. PhD thesis The Open University.



A consensus exists amongst both contemporary and present day students of penology that the prison reform process of the late-eighteenth century achieved one of its main objectives: the removal of a high risk of death from disease whilst incarcerated as an additional penalty to that imposed by the courts. Most observers are also in agreement that much of this desirable outcome was achieved by improving the prison environment - principally in respect of better standards of hygiene and a reduction in overcrowding. No such consensus exists amongst modem commentators as to the role of prison medical officers in this amelioration; indeed there has been a tendency to impute a negative role to these men. They are accused of being deeply involved in a system designed to control and dominate the lower orders of society, conniving in resultant deleterious effects on the health of their patients. This thesis provides the first detailed analysis of the effects of the day-to-day work of prison medical officers in the period 1770 to 1850. I have amassed information from several sources including: (1) journals kept by prison medical officers, (2) parliamentary enquiries, and (3) reports of prison inspectors. Some of these sources have never been previously studied; others have never been subjected to scrutiny from an informed medical standpoint. I have concluded that the prime factor motivating prison medical staff was the provision of care; their participation in a control system, although unavoidable, did not have an adverse effect on the standard of care. This care was, so far as can be ascertained, of the same standard as that provided to their private patients and although some treatment methods may seem primitive or even cruel to the modem reader, these were standard at the time. The practice of medicine involves the exercise of power; these men exercised that power in a correct and professional manner, caring for their patients to the best of their ability and ensuring maintenance of as healthy a prison environment as was possible.

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