‘Invalids Wanted’: Residential care in the 19th century.

One of the (welcome) side benefits of spending hours trawling through newspaper databases, whilst searching for material for my beards project was the raft of fantastic, and sometimes intriguing, references that caught my eye in passing.  These could be anything from quirky reports of events to adverts for unusual products. Amongst the more intriguing references that I came across were a type of advertisement that popped up quite regularly in nineteenth-century newspapers, placed by medical practitioners.  Rather than advertising their services or products, however, these were ‘wanted’ advertisements. And what they were looking for was even more unusual…an ‘invalid’ to come and live with them!

The Morning Post of 22 January 1820, for example, contained a request from ‘A Medical Gentleman, living in an airy and pleasant situation in Surrey…wishes to receive into his house an INVALID whose health may require medical care, or whose intellects are impaired’. ‘Every humane attention and kindness’ was promised. In the Brighton Gazette in 1848, an advertisement titled ‘To INVALIDS and Others’ another medical gentleman ‘living in a pleasant and salubrious part of the town’ offered part of his house to any lady or gentleman desirous of a large seaside residence…combined, if required, with medical superintendence’. A little bit of further digging yields many other examples. In Jersey, in 1861, a ‘medical man in a most cheerful situation in town wishes to receive a lady or gentleman invalid to reside’. 

In other cases, practitioners went to even further lengths. One ‘medical gentlemen’ in 1824 offered to accompany any ‘respectable invalid’ to any part of Europe in, as he was quick to stress, ‘a professional capacity’. Another, ‘lately returned from accompanying an invalid on the continent’, had clearly enjoyed himself so much that he was ‘desirous of a similar engagement’ – or a return trip. So keen was he that he made a point of stressing that high remuneration is not his object’. 

Copyright Wellcome Trust/Wellcome Images

Some specified the types of treatments that their resident patient could expect. ‘Invalids’ near Bath suffering from ‘mental, spinal or nervous affection’ in 1846, for example, were offered Mesmerism, as well as ‘superior accommodation’ by the slightly-too-conveniently named ‘M.D.’ Mesmerism, named after its inventor Franz Mesmer, sometimes known as Animal-Magnetism, was a form of hypnotism that had become popular in the 18th century but enjoyed a resurgence in the mid 19th century through the mesmeric public demonstrations of a French practitioner, Charles Poyen. (For a nice article about Poyen, click here)

The Mesmeric Aura! Copyright Wellcome Trust/Wellcome Images

On the face of it there are obvious potential reasons for the motivations of physicians to place such adverts. First is charity. It is entirely possible that philanthropically-minded ‘medical gentlemen’ with room to spare in their storeyed townhouses were simply following their natural, and perhaps religious, instincts to relieve suffering by taking a patient in to provide dedicated care. 

Second, having a patient ‘live in’ offered medical practitioners the time and space to perfect their therapeutic techniques, or even develop new ones. It is also worth noting that, while money isn’t usually mentioned, the assumption was presumably that the patient would contribute something to their keep, so financial reasons perhaps offered another incentive.  

Perhaps the most plausible reason behind such advertisements were new ideas about the treatment of the sick and infirm from the early decades of the nineteenth century, and beliefs in a ‘change of air’ as a potential restorative. cure for many ailments. As Richard E. Morris has argued, British physicians understood two types of ‘invalids’: those with physiological symptoms, and those with nervous exhaustion. The latter group ‘nervous invalids’ in particular, especially if they lived in a city, were seen as benefitting from a shift into country or sea air. Those suffering from ‘wet’ diseases such as consumption (TB) were recommended to seek either high altitude, coastal, or dry, inland locations for their cure. 

The ‘health tourism’ that this created saw particular resort towns gain favour, and local hotels and guest houses become popular with patients seeking a restorative break and a favourable climate. The phenomenon of the spa town was already well known too, and places such as Bath, Cheltenham and Llandrindod Wells had all been popular places of resort in the eighteenth century. But these advertisements suggest that those medical practitioners offering residence in their ‘airy’, ‘pleasantly situated’ or ‘seaside’ residence were actually also playing into broader ideas about recuperation and the ‘change of air’ and opening up their own, conveniently-located, homes as healing places. 

Copyright Wellcome Trust/Wellcome Images

Even despite this though (and perhaps I’m getting cynical in my middle age!), but I can’t help finding some elements of these advertisements (sometimes with titles such as ‘Invalid wanted’!) slightly sinister. First is the fact that they are often anonymous. Rarely was the name of the particular practitioner supplied, with more often pseudonyms, such as ‘Medicus’, or just initials. Also applicants were generally told to apply at the local post office, or other business, such as a bookseller. (One exception was a Dr Todd, who offered to ‘take charge of an invalid lady or gentleman’ for their ‘every comfort and advantage’!). 

Some almost read like disguised dating ads: In 1842, any ‘Invalid gentleman requiring constant attention’ and who wanted ‘handsomely furnished apartments’ was directed to contact a surgeon (‘who is unmarried and located in one of the best and most healthy situations in Clifton’) where a personal interview could be speedily arranged.

Whatever the individual motivations might have been, these advertisements do offer an interesting window into a side of medical practice, and a type of residential care, that we don’t necessarily associate with the nineteenth century.

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