Breaking Bad in Regency England

Breaking Bad in Regency England

Now that I have your attention, I confess that I have never watched the television program Breaking Bad. However, the hype about the show was so successful that even non-television viewers like me have heard of it.

As I was doing research for a Regency story, I found some information about broken bones I thought I would share. I think we all know that a bad break to a bone in the Regency era was a very serious thing. In fact, one of the sources of this article called their post: Setting a Broken Bone – 19th Century Medical Treatment was not for Sissies because setting broken bones was a painful procedure in a time before anesthesia.

A simple fracture of the arm might be relatively easy to put right. Muscles contracted in reaction to the injury and had to be stretched before the bone was set. Thus, the bone of a forearm could be set without too much exertion on the part of the surgeon or bone setter. Once set and placed in a sling, the arm bone required only time and rest to heal.


Larger limbs were not as simple to set. With a broken leg, the size and strength of the leg muscles far exceeded that of the arm, and the exertion to set the bone in place would have required at least two persons. A fracture in the lower leg would have been easier to remedy than a fracture of the thigh, which has the largest muscles. Thigh muscles experience a greater degree of contraction and shortening, and several assistants would have been needed to properly place those bones in their natural position. If, after all the pulling and resetting, both limbs were the same length again, the procedure was considered to be a success.

As early as the 16th century, there were apprentice barber-surgeons who learned their trade by necessity. Yet, not all bone setters were apprenticed to a medical person. If no surgeon or physician lived nearby, the local blacksmith might set bones in humans as well as animals for a fee. The apprentices were often forced into the army to treat soldiers. However, if a soldier’s bones were shattered from canon or gun fire and risked infection, the surgeon might chose to amputate before the tissue developed gangrene.

Bow Frame Amputation Saw 1601-1700


Over the centuries, scientific inventions sped up a surgeon’s or bone setter’s ability to help patients. As early as the 15th century, the printing press churned out medical manuals in which procedures were standardized and knowledge disseminated over the world. In the late 17th century, traction was being used to repair a broken bone, and in 1718, French surgeon, Jean Louis Petit, invented the tourniquet to control bleeding, a medical technique that was especially helpful during amputations.

Some bone setters were celebrated for their skill. In the early 18th century a Mrs. Mapp was legendary for her abilities. The daughter of another famous bone setter, Polly Peachum, the wife of the Duke of Bolton, Mapp was known as Crazy Sally. Nevertheless, her cures earned her upward of 100 guineas per year. Below is a quote from an article in Boston Medical and Surgeon Journal regarding Mrs. Mapp.

Her bandages were neat, and her skill in reducing dislocations and in setting fractures was said to be wonderful. If it was known that she was going to the theatre, that was sufficient to fill the house. Her own estimate of herself is shown by an interesting incident. When passing through Kent street, she was taken for one of the King’s German mistresses, who was unpopular. A mob gathered and used threatening language. Mrs. Mapp thereupon put her head out of the window and cried, ‘Damn your bloods, don’t you know me? I am Mrs. Mapp, the bone setter,’ and drove away amid the applause of the multitude.”

Sarah Mapp – Bone Setter


Not everyone was a fan however. In the same publication was this insult: “Mr. Percival Pott, the celebrated surgeon, who was her contemporary, spoke of her claims as the most extravagant assertions of an ignorant illiberal drunken female savage.”  

I will add that had Ms. Mapp appeared at my door, she would likely have been sent packing. Bless her heart. It is good thing she had an occupation because she wasn’t going to catch anyone’s eye with her beauty! And, though she was married at one time, it was said that her husband thrashed her before running off with her money.

I wanted to end by including this picture entitled The Comforts of Bath by Rowlandson. Though it was meant to make us smile, there were a great many people during Jane Austen’s time that suffered because of the lack of medical care and knowledge. As far as our health is concerned, we are truly blessed to live today.



Information in this post came from


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February 29, 2016 11:48 AM

“Forced to enlist” – any details on how such a thing might happen?

February 29, 2016 6:51 PM
Reply to  Summer

Summer, one can only imagine but perhaps if they wanted to ‘continue’ in their chosen profession they ‘had’ to go along. Most of these people were of the lower class and did not have the money or education to rise above their station without sponsorship. I appreciate your taking the time to post on this blog after all this time. “smiles” It is good to know people are reading.

Sheila L. M.
Sheila L. M.
July 26, 2015 10:38 PM

(I am way behind in reading some of my e-mails. Sorry.) Many reasons I am glad i live in this day and age: gender roles, cleanliness, medications, personal hygiene, etc. I would be dead by now as I am in remission from leukemia – would have simply died and no one would have even known the cause. Even reading of Civil War doctors and amputations is horrifying! Thanks for the explanations – I skimmed over much as I don’t need to take the images to dream land with me.

Deborah Fortin
July 13, 2015 5:55 AM

Thank you for sharing. So glad I live in a time of anesthesia. The grossest thing about the amputation saw is that it wasn’t cleaned between amputations; actually never cleaned at all.

July 10, 2015 6:28 AM

Fascinating and terrifying! I am so glad I didn’t live in those times. My daughter broke her arm twice when she was a little girl and I am so grateful that her treatment was so successful and now she is in her thirties with her own family.

Joana Starnes
July 9, 2015 1:18 PM

Thanks for this amazing post, Brenda! I keep fantasising about Regency England, and the thought of what passed for medicine and surgery in those days is the only one that makes me glad they haven’t invented a time machine yet. If we ever find a portal we could walk through, a large bag of antibiotics is high up there on the list of things to take with me. But chances are that I would probably be pilloried as a witch or something 😀

jennifer redlarczyk
jennifer redlarczyk
July 9, 2015 10:05 AM

Well, having broken my arm two years ago and needed surgery, there is no way I would want to have lived in Regency times with that type of injury. I probably would never have been able to fully use my arm again, and considering I play violin and piano, that would have been very depressing. Today we have so many modern conveniences, but back then a useless limb must have been horrible. As for the saw, I won’t even go there. YIKES! Thanks for your post. It should make us think twice when writing broken bones for our dear Regency folks. OUCH!

MaryAnn Nagy
July 9, 2015 9:48 AM

Interesting how far we have come in the field of medicine! How grateful we should all feel with the advancement of education for the good of all mankind! There is still pain but not the misery as back then. The same goes for nursing, from Sari Gamp to modern day nursing.

July 9, 2015 8:53 AM

Thank you for this interesting article. I am so grateful for modern medicine.

July 9, 2015 6:27 AM

I am glad that I have still never been a patient in a hospital – I was even born at home

July 9, 2015 5:34 AM

As a mother that has a very active son who has broken more bones than I can remember, I am very grateful for modern day medicine, even with our modern day medicine he still has had some side effects from the breaks and surgery was/still necessary. My grandmothesr brother suffered a break in his leg and ended being crippled the rest of his life. thanks for sharing this.

July 9, 2015 5:24 AM

Oh Brenda! This is fascinating! It’s a wonder folks appear so posture-perfect in their paintings, when one fall from a horse could make for a life-time limp.
But I do suppose an artist could correct the worst stance. Thank you for this post.

July 9, 2015 3:06 AM

Yes, we are really blessed to live today, I completely agree with you. The medical treatment of the past made me shiver.

Cecilia Gray
July 9, 2015 12:29 AM


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