As expected, Kent was not spared the major health turbulences affecting the rest of England in medieval times and its population was systematically decimated by epidemics of highly contagious diseases, such as bubonic plague, cholera, influenza and tuberculosis. The main culprit for these epidemics was a substandard hygiene, principally due to the inability to construct a proper drainage system, which left people directly exposed to human waste and its infectious hazards.

The bubonic plague. Also known as the Black Death, the bubonic plague came westwards from mainland Europe , when an epidemic had broken out in 1347, and the following year reached England, it is beleieved through a sip of infected rats. That year alone, the plague killed a staggering number of people, estimated between one third and half of England's population. The plague returned a number of times since, yet not with such severity, in 1360-1361, then during the 1370s and 1380s. It finally returned with a vengeance in 1665 and the pandemic became what is remembered as The Great Plague of London. Due to its proximity to London, Kent was substantially affected during each outbreak.

Cholera. Kent's people were also decimated by four cholera outbreaks, which were caused by poor water quality. During mid 19th century, when urbanisation was in full progress yet water sanitation methods were virtually unknown, the first cholera pandemic appeared in 1831, making a great number of victims. The outbreaks of 1848, 1854 and 1866 followed, as the population still did not have access to clean, purified drinkable water. Towards the end of the century, pipe systems were already in place in most urban environments, although not all, and the cholera outbreaks stopped occurring.

Tuberculosis, typhoid and influenza. During mid 19th century, due to precarious living conditions, many people developed what has remained in history as the White Death. Tuberculosis is highly contagious and can be fatal if left untreated; it was prevalent in poor neighbourhoods of newly expanded cities. In Maidstone, 1897, more than 130 people succumbed to typhoid fever, which spread rapidly and affected over 1800 people. A few decades later, in 1918 and 1919, the whole of Kent was affected by a seemingly unstoppable outbreak of influenza, which in total killed several thousand people.

William Harvey

Among a number of pioneers in other fields of activity, Kent has produced quite a few notable physicians as well, who were credited for ground-breaking treatments or discoveries in their day. William Harvey, born in Folkestone in 1578, was the first physician to understand and document the circulation of the blood, which was an important advancement in the field of anatomy. William Harvey had an extensive higher education and became a lecturer in the field of anatomy, at the same time practicing medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. He acquired recognition for his knowledge and experience and became the physician of King James I. Later he would be named Charles I's physician as well. At the time he held notable functions in the College of Physicians, which he preserved for the rest of his life. He elaborated his treatise on blood circulation in 1628, entitling it De Motu Cordis. His work was the result of assiduous research, consisting on many experiments and observations. William Harvey died in 1657 of natural causes, and left behind what is considered a crucial stepping stone in physiology.

The Beginnings Of Modern Healthcare

Some hospitals in Kent can be dated as far back as the 18th century, such as the Kent and Canterbury Hospital (which in time evolved into one of Kent's best healthcare facilities). The hospital opened as early as 1793 and was expanded several times, in 1821, 1838 and finally in 1871, when it reached its final proportions. It was to close during the next century, in 1937. Whereas before the 20th century people often succumbed to poor hygiene and a low standard of living across urban and rural areas alike, during the first half of the 20th century medicine began advancing rapidly, yet differentiated between patients according to their social class. There were three types of hospitals in Kent, the best category (also referred to as nursing homes) only accessible to the wealthy, public hospitals and charitable ones, the latter category comprising practices run by volunteers in order to aid the disrespected lower class population. Much like the present situation in most western societies, medical services were usually centred on money and one's ability to pay determined their health and potential lifespan. The prospect of a National Health Service was put forth during the Second World War and although it encountered a significant degree of antagonism at first, in time it proved to be the best solution.

Present Day

Today, Kent is home to some of the best hospitals in the country, particularly in the field of cardiology. Its best performing hospitals are thought to be East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust (which is actually considered one of the best hospitals in England, due to the very low mortality rates and the short periods of time patients need to wait on average before receiving surgery) and the Royal Surrey County NHS Foundation Trust (which is also ranked very highly for the optimal care provided to patients who have suffered a stroke and for its orthopaedic treatments). In addition to them there are Frimley Park Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and Ashford and St Peter's Hospitals NHS Trust.