How Charles Dickens Brought Positive Change to Victorian Medicine and Society

Charles Dickens’ illustration of the poor in his stories led to positive improvements in medicine and charity.

Some of his ideas were considered radically progressive in his day, and yet from his very first publications to his last, Charles Dickens stories shed light on some of the darkest and most despicable living conditions in London, and all the disease and desperation that went along with them.

illustration of a Charles Dickens book
Charles Dickens illustrated the plight of the poor in his stories, leading to positive improvements.




No other time of year brings Charles Dickens to our attention than Christmas. Of all his 40+ books, none seems as beloved as The Christmas Carol, and each year’s holiday season sees theatrical performances, dramatic readings, and countless airings of its many film, radio, and television adaptations.

While Scrooge and his spirit-led transformation is at the heart of the story, at the time of its publication in the 1840s, Tiny Tim’s character was just as noteworthy. In a time before antiseptics, antibiotics, germ theory, specialized hospitals, technological advances like medical lasers, and even a full understanding of anatomy and physiology, portraying a disabled person in a favorable light was socially radical.

Tiny Tim, Huge Feat

The English-speaking world’s first “blockbuster” novelist, Dickens is often remembered for his prolific literary skills. And yet he was a great social, and medical, reformer. Dickens was so influential in changing minds and habits and so important to the Victorian medical profession that the British Medical Journal carried his obituary. Some of his ideas were considered radically progressive in his day, and yet from his very first publications to his last, his stories shed light on some of the darkest and most despicable living conditions in London, and all the disease and desperation that went along with them. By the time of his death, he had helped establish the first shelter for homeless women anywhere in the world. He was instrumental in the founding of London’s first pediatric hospital, as well as facilitating the study of orthopedics.

Roots in Reality

Dickens’ empathy for the poor can be traced back to his own misfortunes in childhood. His father fell into debts that he could not pay, and much of his family—younger siblings and parents—were forced into the workhouse. Dickens himself worked in a factory making shoe polish, and spent his nights roaming the mean streets of London’s poorest neighborhoods.

Many of his best-known and beloved stories were inspired by his own personal experiences. He knew firsthand the filth, squalor, disease, and untimely deaths that visited his characters, for they had visited those he had known in his lifetime. It’s little wonder, then, that their stories made their way into his tales.

A New Portrayal of the Less Fortunate

What Dickens did that was so different, though, was that he portrayed the poor, diseased, and disabled in ways far different than society saw them at the time. He was also very careful to distinguish between the mentally disabled and the physically handicapped, something society was not very apt to do.

Tiny Tim’s appearance as a main character was progressive thought in action. He saw no reason why there couldn’t be a “cripple” in his tale. That the boy was a major source of joy and light to his family and not some burden or hindrance was no doubt a shock to the systems of many a society matron. To think, a handicapped person could actually matter! (And have intellect and soul, to boot!)

It’s true—Dickens did portray some of his “bad guys” as being disabled in some way. It wasn’t their disabilities that made them bad, though—they could’ve been as whole and hearty as a sailor—it was their personality and character.

Three Cheers for Charles Dickens

Dickens used his fame and influence to change lives, to bring about a better way of life for those less fortunate. His stories made Victorian medicine and society sit up and take notice. His aid and influence made him a hero in the eyes of both the poor and the high and mighty. Next time you see Scrooge, Bob, and Tiny Tim, remember that you’re witnessing a major event in medical and social history.

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