The History of Surgery: A Bloody (And Painful) Timeline

Picture today, a surgical scene: sterile room, bright lights,
instruments clean. Patients today know they’ll be safe.
But lo, long ago, this was not such the case. What once was called “surgery”
was nothing of sort, and began when such things
were of desperate resort. From the new Stone Age,
4500 BC, where holes drilled in skulls
were the best you would see. With these crude efforts
and noble intentions, only turpentine and vinegar
might stave off infections. And for these poor patients,
through their howls and their groans, nothing they’re offered
eased the slicing of bone. Flash-forward some years
to the ancient Egyptians, learning of organs
through mummifications. ‘Twas known that honey
kept infection at bay — after their saws and forceps
had had their way. The Greeks also made tools
for their own resections, and found that wine
helped ward off infections. Gladiators thrived
with Galen around, who studied the body,
slicing on beasts that he’d found. Clearly, surgery before anesthesia
was simply barbaric, excruciating pain
making patients hysteric. But this was a time
to be awake was thought key, to come out alive
of your surgery. In India, years later,
‘cross all the land, nose upon nose
was sliced off by hand. As punishment, yes
— which was the worst — the loss or the cure:
nose stitched back with force? Through the Middle Ages,
this agony of pain continued,
leaving the needy writhing in vain. As concoctions of herbs
attempted to mask the unspeakable agony
of resolute surgeons’ tasks. Here soon emerged
a brand-new vocation: barber-surgeons pulled teeth
and did amputations. Inside of their shops,
your wounds he’d repair, and for a spare shilling
he’d trim up your hair. At this time, in large cities,
emerged a disease that would rot off your face
while spreading with ease. Quite the scandal,
but surgeons and skin grafts could save you in weeks, though, by stitching your arm —
to the side of your cheek. But here, education
humbly begins to improve how surgeons
could heal their kin. Those students were faced with
dubious terms forced to steal cadavers
to dissect and to learn. Finally, from darkness,
a turn that advances with the arrival of chloroform,
ether and gases. Which tamed the edge
of all of this pain, though significant risks
of dying remained. But then new technologies
wrought realizations, like how gloves made of rubber
could aid sterilization. And through a germ theory,
new insights arrived. Why, simply washing one’s hands
could help patients survive! So, by the mid-1900s,
surgery was safe, antibiotics
having found their true place. Amongst better schooling
and doctors who shared the skills, yes to heal,
but also to care. Now the term “healthcare”
means thousands of tasks — thousands of roles
built on the past. And with esteemed institutions
teaching what’s right, the history of surgery’s future —
is bright.

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