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Four Downton Abbey Health Afflictions You (Probably) Don’t Have to Worry About

At times, the thought of living a Downton Abbey lifestyle doesn’t sound half bad – you’ve got servants to bring you breakfast in bed; days filled with leisurely strolls around the grounds; and no need for online dating. In terms of healthcare, however, there are plenty of reasons to prefer our modern existence. Read on for a few of the health afflictions seen on Downton Abbey that we most likely don’t have to worry about today. WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!
 

Preeclampsia – Sybil

When Downton Abbey darling Sybil ran away with the chauffeur, viewers thought that the pinnacle of drama for the younger Crawley daughter had been reached. Not so. In Series Three, Sybil gives birth to her daughter and becomes suddenly ill; the lady’s two doctors argue over what route of treatment to take, but their row is quickly rendered pointless – Sybil is dead.

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Complications and death during childbirth still affect many women today; according to the United Nations Population Fund, an estimated 1,400 women around the world die every day due to causes related to pregnancy.

While not explicitly diagnosed, Sybil Crawley most likely died of eclampsia, the medical term for seizures, coma and potentially death in a woman who has just given birth. The seizures of eclampsia are usually prefaced by preeclampsia, or symptoms which occur before delivery and indicate that eclampsia is on its way. When Sybil complained of a headache and mental fogginess, she was experiencing preeclampsia. Other preeclampsia signs include rapid weight gain and a sudden rise in blood pressure, and like Sybil, most of the women affected by eclampsia are giving birth for the first time.

Unfortunately, Sybil’s doctor’s did not recognize her sickness as preeclampsia, and so were unprepared to help when the fatal seizures of post-delivery eclampsia struck. This is especially a shame seeing as early as the 1900s, eclampsia has been treatable by a simple medicine made from magnesium sulfate.

Cataracts – Mrs. Patmore

At Downton Abbey there are never too many cooks in the kitchen – and that’s because head cook Mrs. Patmore runs a tight shift. Until, that is, the end of Series One when Mrs. Patmore mistakes the salt for the sugar and sprinkles heaps of sodium on her lovely raspberry meringue pudding.

Why the confusion over what is salt and what is sugar? Because Mrs. Patmore has cataracts; a clouding of the eye affecting the inside of the lens. Like many people before and after her, Mrs. Patmore is slowly going blind due to the condition. When she finally admits to eye trouble, the cook’s recently strange behavior becomes clear – she has been knocking chickens off tables and refusing to read new recipes because she cannot see.

Cataracts are not normally the result of a disease, but rather a product of growing older. People affected by diabetes, or who are long time users of cigarettes or alcohol, may be more prone to cataract development.

These days, the process of removing cataracts is simple. A patient will be given local anesthetic to numb the eye, after which doctors will cut through the cornea and use ultrasound technology to break up the lens affected by cataracts. The emulsified fluid will be removed, a new lens inserted and the wound sealed, and the patient fully recovered in less than a month.

In Mrs. Patmore’s time, surgery to remove cataracts was a bit more complicated. The initial wound to operate on the eye would have been larger, and when doctors had finished operating, that cut might likely have been sewn up with a needle and thread.

Spanish Flu – Lavinia

When Spanish Flu hits the Crawley household, three characters are taken ill: The butler, Mr. Carson; lady of the house Cora Grantham; and Lavinia Swire, a young woman betrothed to Downton Abbey heir Matthew Crawley. Mr. Carson attempts to hide his illness and get on with the work of the estate (in typical Mr. Carson fashion), and it is Lady Grantham who suffers the most from fever and delirium. However, Lady Grantham recovers, and quite suddenly Lavinia worsens, and finally dies.

If a member of its household had not succumbed to Spanish Flu, Downton Abbey would have been an anomaly for its time. Spanish Flu is estimated to have affected 500 million people around the world, killing as many as 100 million of those infected. The flu virus, H1N1, is the same virus that lead to the 2009 flu pandemic beginning in Southeast Asia.

The H1N1 virus is similar to the common flu in its symptoms of nausea, vomiting and fever; however, H1N1 is far more deadly. Whereas less than half of one percent of sufferers will die from the common flu, around one in five people affected by H1N1 will not survive. Most of these fatalities are due to a compromised immune system, and further complications of the flu such as pneumonia.

In 1918 and 1919, Spanish Flu was thought to have spread due to tight living quarters during the First World War. With soldiers crowding together in barracks, and sick men sent home on tightly-packed trains, it’s no surprise that the disease was able to multiply rapidly. Unfortunately, like Lavinia, many of those infected by the Spanish Flu were not soldiers themselves, but family members back home.

Dropsy – The Farmer

Our poor, unnamed farmer utters barely two sentences, yet provides for plenty of drama at the beginning of Downton Abbey Series One. The local physician, Dr. Clarkson, thinks that the farmer’s heart problems, known in the early 1900s as dropsy, should be treated  using old fashioned methods. The tenacious Mrs. Crawley, a former nurse during the Boer War, disagrees and insists that he perform a pericardiocentesis on the farmer to remove excess fluid from the sac around the heart. In the end, with a bit of adrenaline to get his heart beating once again, the treatment is deemed a success.

Nowadays, we would call the farmer’s condition congestive heart failure – a condition wherein fluid collects around the heart, thereby rendering it unable to pump blood around the body. Just like today, dropsy may have been caused in the early 1900s by a number of factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes, or untreated heart disease. Of course, one could argue that the real illness in this episode is the lack of women allowed into the medical profession in the early twentieth century; an illness which has since been cured.

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