It’s a fine day, and you’ve decided to get some fresh air and exercise.  You’re out and about, moving with vitality, and comfortably unaware of the moments that come and go in the pleasant procession of time.  But, something is about to happen that will shatter your serenity and make this otherwise disposable moment suddenly unforgettable.  You see, you are about to fall victim to a traumatic accident, a compound fracture of your leg.  Your eyes will widen with shock as you see the sharp, white protrusion of bone where it should not be, and as the pain crescendos, all you will want is to reach out and grab this moment and hold it once again… this moment when you were healthy, when you moved with vitality, when the horrible accident had not yet happened.

For almost all people who have ever lived prior to the modern age, they would think much the same; if only they could somehow undo what happened, reach back in time and re-grasp their health.  But for them, such an injury would be catastrophically irreversible.  Until little over a century ago, a compound fracture could rarely be fixed, and the true terror of their experience would not the pain, but the realization that it was probably the beginning of their end.  Their next moment would commence an agonizing countdown to a likely death by infection, disrupted only by the vain attempt at amputation without anesthesia.  For you, though, it would be quite different.  Your next moment would feature a rapid response of aseptic surgical care under general anesthesia, through which you’d experience relatively minor pain.  Recovery would be arduous, but you would recover, and you would almost certainly regain your vitality.  In the eyes of all who lived before the age of modern surgery, you would have the power to reach through time and grasp that precious moment of health before the accident.

From correcting compound fractures to replacing failed organs, modern surgery has heavily armed us against the historical scourge of untimely morbidity and mortality.  But how have we gained such mastery over our anatomy to heal ourselves like mutant superheroes in comparison to the suffering of our ancestors?  How did we conquer pain and infection?  How did we go from applying leaches to fastening ligatures, from bloodletting to bone marrow grafting?

I give you surgery, and how it began.


Select Bibliography for Surgery

Frederick F Cartwright, The Development of Modern Surgery, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1967.

Harold Ellis, A History of Surgery, Greenwich Medical Media Limited, 2001.

Medical Theory, Surgical Practice, Edited by Christopher Lawrence, Routledge, 1992.

Nicholas L. Tilney, Invasion of the Body: Revolutions in Surgery, Harvard University Press, 2011.

Roy Porter, Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

The Cambridge History of Medicine, Edited by Roy Porter, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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