The History of Surgery

Surgery is a growing field. New technologies and methods for carrying out procedures are constantly evolving, making surgery much more safer and result in higher success rates. However, in the past, this wasn’t at all the case. All aspects of medicine weren’t as advanced and were completely different, including surgery.

Anaesthesia wasn’t even around until the mid-19th century so you can probably imagine how painful surgery must have been for the patients of the past. They had to be strapped down tightly, and the chances of dying from blood loss or infection were extremely high. Most surgeons thought that patients must be awake and responsive during surgery, to maximise the chances of survival. One of the earliest cases of surgery was trepanation (drilling holes into the skull) as it was believed to help treat head injuries and pull-out spirits from patients. It’s hard not to see why surgery was only ever used as a last resort back then, isn’t it?

However, perhaps one of the most important moments in history was in the third century. A famous surgeon and physician called Galen treated wounded gladiators in Rome and dissected animals to learn more about the anatomy of humans since human dissection was illegal at the time. He wrote about what he researched which needless to say wasn’t accurate as it was based heavily on animal anatomy, and yet, it impacted medicine for the following centuries.

Galen. Credit: TheFamousPeople

The next development in the field of surgery was with the beginning of the career of a barber-surgeon around 1000AD. It’s exactly as it sounds: a person who along with cutting hair, also performed amputations, tooth-pulling, bloodletting and other surgical procedures. Theoretically, a client could have been getting their hair cut while the person next to them was undergoing life-changing surgery.

The dissection of human bodies in medical schools was finally permitted around the 1300s by the church, allowing surgeons and medical students to finally learn about the mysteries of the human body and apply them in treating patients. Andreas Vesalius, another famous surgeon, published a book that completely changed the medical field called, “The Fabric of the Human Body.” This book addressed the many misconceptions and inaccuracies of Galen’s work that had primarily controlled the medical field and marked the beginning of a shift in medicine.

Andreas Vesalius. Credit: Britannica

However, in the 1700s, as there were many medical schools and many students who needed to learn anatomy, there was a rising need for cadavers that soon couldn’t be met. They could have come from people who donated their bodies to science or from criminals receiving death penalties. Students only received parts of cadavers to dissect and learn from because of the lack of cadavers available. Consequently, body snatching became popular and criminals went to cemeteries and dug up bodies to supply to medical schools in order to meet the demands.

In this era, effective anaesthesia still didn’t exist so surgeons needed to work quickly to increase the chances of success for the procedure, though this meant that they weren’t as accurate. This all changed by the 1800s where ether and chloroform were used as anaesthesia, though they were extremely dangerous. Ether is highly flammable and exposure to chloroform results in respiratory failure and heart arrhythmias (an abnormal or unusual heart rate).

Nowadays, safer pain-relievers and sedatives are primarily used in anaesthesia to keep a patient comfortable in surgery. This also means that surgery now doesn’t have to be rushed, improving accuracy and allowing students to learn more about the anatomy of living people.

The chances of survival finally improved with the development of germ theory, which states that pathogens (harmful micro-organisms) can lead to disease. As a result, surgeons washed their hands and wore rubber gloves to reduce the risk of contamination and infection. Surgical instruments and clothes were sterilised too before surgery.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

In the 20th Century, advancements such as blood transfusions and anti-biotics further made surgery safer and improved survival chances in patients. Procedures such as transplants, implants, and many others were actually possible due to amazing medical developments and technology.

Surgery in the 21st Century is even more advanced and incredible. Sophisticated techniques such as keyhole surgery (laparoscopy) are now used instead of the previous crude methods of treating injuries. Surgery is a constantly evolving field so who knows what surgery will be like in the future? Will the methods we use now be considered barbaric in a couple of hundred years? How will surgery change to increase the chances of success in a procedure?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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