Life before antibiotics

I’m sick and miserable and while I’m waiting to call the doctor tomorrow morning, I was thinking about how people used to cope with illness before the days of antibiotics.

If they had something like strep throat, did they just wait for it to go away ? How did they treat the things that we need antibiotics for ?


Pretty much. There were/are some herbal treatments that worked for some things, but most people had to simply hope that they got better and didn’t die of whatever it was that they’d come down with. Aren’t you glad you live in the 21st Century?

Mortality rates were higher. My dad’s sister died of rheumatic fever (from strep) and my dad was deafened by scarlet fever (also strep).

Even so, most people recovered from the minor ailments that have us rushing to doctors now; viral colds and ear and sinus infections.

Of the stuff we doctors generally see, 90% gets better no matter what we do, 8% gets worse no matter what we do. It’s that last 2% where we have to be on our toes, and where we can make a difference.

Qadgop is exactly right. A very interesting observation is rising life expectancy during the 20th century. Most people would guess that it started significant increases around the time of antibiotics but in reality started about 15 years earlier. The single most important advance related to increased life span and decreased morbidity was widespred useage of sanitary sewers in the major cities.

I have also heard it argued that the most important factor was the increased availability of food: Better nutrition => increased ability to fight of disease.

Have you ever read “All Creatures Great and Small” by James Herriot? It’s about veterinary practice in England before antibiotics. I know you’re talking about human illness but they are obviously related.

I think the answer to your question “How did people deal with Strep throat” is: Sometimes they died of it.

In a later book, Herriot tells of saving a cow with a massive infusion of penecillin (they didn’t know how much to give, it had just been released and was packaged for a completely different disease. They just gave it all he had in his car). He then reflects on how many of his pre-war treatments were basically useless to begin with. Better than nothing, but pretty much useless.

I remember talking to my great-grandmother tell me the story of one of her sons, who died at 17 from leukemia. This was in the late 30’s I guess, and how she moved heaven and earth to get penicillin for him, they did and naturally it didn’t do anything.

Want to know what it was like to live pre-antibiotics? Wait twenty years, when all of the new strains of bugs are resistant to the antibiotics we’ve been misusing for so long.


I heard a doctor from Sloan-Kettering discuss this in a TV interview. Sulfa’s were the first good antibiotics followed shortly by penicilin. Until then physicians had virtually no treatment for most diseases except possibly surgery when applicable. What happened was that the symptoms, pain, etc., were treated as best as possible and the imune system either worked or not. In by far the great majority of cases it worked.

I can confirm this, but I’ll have to wait until I get home to dig up a cite. The study I’m thinking of is summarized in one of the early chapters of a book called When Things Bite Back. It’s got some very clear numbers about mortality and such that show the improvement of population health as being coincident with nutrition, not with either sanitation or antibiotics. I’ll get a hold of the book and return later today or tomorrow.

Thank you for mentioning that, dauerbach.

I first heard that quote from Dr. Dan Turner when he was an officer with ASCE. I believe what he said was, the average life expectancy has increased 40 years since our grandfather’s day. This increase is due to clean drinking water and proper disposal of gray water.

add to the better food, sanitation and clear water the railroads - which (besides food) brought fresh milk. Before the railroads were built, here in NYC the milk you bought came from a cow that was fed on brewery mash - which meant the milk was thin and pretty much nutrition free. After the railroads, milk from upstate dairy farms became cheap and plentiful. Stronger kids, stronger adults can fight off stronger bugs.