Death At Downton Abbey: Preeclampsia Then And Now

Downton Abbey preeclampsia then and nowPart of the reason why I love Downton Abbey is that it’s so real. No, of course there was no real-life Lady Mary, and the Dowager Countess never really asked, “What is a weekend?!” But the show is so well researched that I always feel I’m learning a bit of history while I’m getting my juicy TV fix. (Spoiler Alert! I will be divulging a major plot point, though won’t say which charatcer it affects.) This week’s episode was no exception, bringing maternal health into the spotlight when one of the characters died of eclampsia, a very serious complication of pregnancy that results from untreated preeclampsia.

Curious about what treatments were available for women suffering from preeclampsia in the times of Downton Abbey, I did a quick look into what maternal health practices were like back then. Turns out, preeclampsia wasn’t even a named disorder until 1920–the year this season is set in. Now I totally get why the attending doctor’s diagnosis of eclampsia was challenged on this week’s episode. Before 1920, eclampsia deaths were chalked up to “convulsions” and left at that, and even in 1920, since the identification of the disorder was so new, only the top doctors (like the ones the Crawleys have) were fully aware of it.

Luckily for moms-to-be everywhere, we’ve come a long way medically since the times of Downton Abbey. Although preeclampsia still affects five to eight percent of pregnancies according to the Preeclampsia Foundation–and yes, it still can be fatal–doctors know to screen pregnant women’s blood pressure and urine carefully at every office visit for signs of the disorder. Today, mild preeclampsia diagnosed pre-term can sometimes be held at bay through hospitalized bed rest, although many cases necessitate induced delivery to save the mother’s life.

Do you watch Downton Abbey? Were you as shocked by the eclampsia death as I was?

Image via PBS. 

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  1. by Gail

    On February 2, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    I love DA and was NOT shocked by this plot point, since I accidentally read a spoiler online! I was almost glad to be prepared, though; that was so very difficult to watch.

    Great post.

  2. by Jess

    On February 7, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    I had preeclampsia with my first pregnancy, and am currently 27 weeks pregnant with my second. So far everything this time around seems much better, but watching that episode of Downton was so hard! I had a feeling something was going to happen, but I didn’t know it was going to be preeclampsia. Scary, and just one more reason I am SO thankful for modern medicine.

  3. [...] I then had a less than ideal appointment with my midwife who was shocked at my sudden weight gain (5 kg in 5 weeks), plus she detected protein in my urine. She said we need to keep a close eye on my weight (no desserts!), blood sugar, and blood pressure because the protein in my urine could be a sign of something more serious to come. This led me to Google it and of course, it made me panic because all I could find were articles that talked about pre-eclampsia, which if you watched Downton Abbey, one of the main characters died after giving birth because she suffered from undetected eclampsia. [...]