Quacks, Florence NO LOGO - TW

Hilarious history resources come of age

There must be a growing population of budding history scholars who have been touched by Terry Deary and Martin Brown’s extensive canon of work. On the face of it, Horrible Histories seem insubstantial.  It looks like they’re based on prurient nosiness and the beastly, gory, savage and gruesome side of historical story telling.  In fact, as the name suggests, the more horrible the better.

Sticky history

There’s no denying it though, information delivered in this way does stick. At the very least the material forms a credible framework which can be added to and refined.

It’s been with more than a wry smile then that many parents and teachers have been watching the new sitcom Quacks on BBC2 (or, for the more impatient viewers, on demand).  The new series focuses on the exploits of a group of medical adventurers in the 1840s.  Make no mistake, this depicts a period which definitely pre-dates the reign of the Health and Safety Officer (or even a decent understanding of the benefits of a sterile environment).  It picks up a number of the topics covered on the history GCSE syllabus – not least the rather cack-handed trial and error anaesthetic experimentation expertly portrayed by Tom Basden.  The principal writer, James Wood, observed that many of these real-life pioneers ended up disgraced, penniless and suicidal addicts.  But not only have we all benefitted from their efforts, Wood himself has mined a rich seam of dark comedic activity.

typical medications found in an old pharmacy

Cultural controversy

Quacks, does not shy away from cultural controversy either.  Through Caroline Lessing (Lydia Leonard) Wood highlights the challenges faced by female medical wannabes.  He shows just how difficult real-life heroes such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson would have found life.  Female patients did not have it easy either.  In their wisdom, doctors declined to examine actual bodies, preferring to use a stylised mini-mannequin instead.

Queen Victoria was, of course largely responsible for the positive PR for chloroform.  Apparently the Monarch had been keen to explore the benefits of the drug, discovered in 1847 by physician James Young.  It wasn’t until her eighth child was born in 1853, that she won the argument with her own doctors.  She found this labour to be ‘delightful beyond measure’.  These things are clearly relative, but Victoria certainly felt that chloroform’s benefits outweighed the negative arguments.

Coming of age

For the adults among us who have enjoyed Horrible Histories (in secret or otherwise) Quacks represents a riotous ‘coming of age’.  According to The Times,  ‘Wood got the balance just right between intelligent writing and gratifying silliness.” Anyone needing a shot in the arm for their commitment to GCSE History could do worse than a dose of Quacks.