Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness

We are open online! Our buildings may be closed, but you can connect virtually to our librarians and staff, and access services, resources, and millions of journals and books — including expanded access through HathiTrust.

About the exhibit

Exhibit dates: October 21, 2013 - May 16, 2014

Medical themes are threaded throughout Masterpiece Theater’s wildly popular Downton Abbey, from Matthew’s temporary paralysis during the Great War to Sybil’s tragic death from eclampsia. The Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine’s holdings come together in "Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness" to illuminate the medicine of Edwardian England. The exhibit explores such themes as nursing, surgery and combat injuries in WWI, maternal and child health, and household medicine using books and artifacts from the library’s extensive early 20th century collections.

In "Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness," visitors to the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine will re-live and learn more about some of the most stressful moments in Masterpiece Theater’s wildly popular Edwardian drama. The history of medicine is an exciting lens for the show’s viewers because it lends insight to both every day and exceptional hopes regarding fears about the body, family, and community.

The beginning of the twentieth century introduced countless changes in medical practice. Germ theory was increasingly accepted, so sanitation was greatly improved and surgeries were more successful. Progressively sophisticated chemistry led both to more effective medicines and more effective chemical warfare. For this and other reasons, World War I--The Great War--introduced new problems and led to novel medical techniques. The medical profession itself was in the midst of a professional revolution because of a heightened interest in specialization and the decreasing status of general, or family, doctors. For the general populace, the shifting power of the upper class stressed concerns about heredity and inheritance. It also encouraged the lower classes to, at times, work toward a higher social station. All, however, experienced technological innovations like electric lights, telephones and automobiles that enhanced daily life, but led to new and more dangerous bodily threats.

Downton Abbey has introduced many of these medical topics to its viewers; "Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness" will continue to explore these instances of bodily trial through books and artifacts found in the Wangensteen Library’s collections. The exhibit will feature cookbooks, surgical manuals and instruments, newspapers, photographs and drawings, and clothing and other accessories from Edwardian England that will highlight the experiences and concerns of 19th and 20th century medicine.

Related news and events

Article: Downton Abbey continues health conversation

After a long wait, season 4 of Downton finally reappeared on PBS at the beginning of January! Lois Hendrickson and I, co-curators of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine’s current exhibit Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness, have been continuing our conversation about Downton and health.

Announcement: Exhibit explores the medicine behind Downton Abbey

Medical themes are threaded throughout Masterpiece Theater’s wildly popular Downton Abbey, from Matthew’s temporary paralysis during the Great War to Sybil’s tragic death from eclampsia. Now, an exhibit at the University of Minnesota Libraries will illuminate the medicine of Edwardian England as portrayed on Downton Abbey.

Video: Medicine of Downton Abbey period ‘almost terrifying’

Viewing the current Downton Abbey exhibit at the Wangensteen Historical Library left graduate student Jeff Moulton feeling a bit queasy as he thought about medicine of the early 20th century. “There are some things that are almost terrifying,” Moulton, a big Downton Abbey fan, said about some of the exhibit artifacts that include “a lot of pokers and tweezers.”

Minnesota Public Radio News interview: 'Downton Abbey' gets a U of M medical check up

There are plenty of television medical dramas on the air these days. But when the Wangensteen Historical Library at the University of Minnesota picked a TV show for the subject of their newest exhibit of medical books and artifacts, they didn't choose a hospital drama.

Online exhibit: Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness

Now an online exhibit, our library holdings come together to illuminate the medical themes threaded throughout Masterpiece Theater’s wildly popular Downton Abbey.