Bones, Blood, Barbers, and Butchers: Surgeons in the 18th Century

In the eighteenth century, the record for the fastest amputation at the thigh was nine seconds, start to finish, including sawing through the bone. Are you impressed yet? Even the average, thirty seconds, was pretty damned fast.

And speed was of the essence. Let’s face it. If you needed surgery in the eighteenth century or the first half of the nineteenth, you’d better be strong and brave, because it wasn’t a doddle. Not for the surgeon, and not at all for the patient.

Patients faced three major killers

They’d solved one of the major issues that killed people who needed surgery, reinventing ligatures to tie off blood vessels so the patient didn’t bleed out on the table. Before the sixteenth century, they’d used cautery—burning—to seal any gushers, vastly adding to the pain. And, of course, closing up the wound as fast as possible helped.

And pain was the second issue. No effective anesthetics. Not until the mid-nineteenth century. The patient was awake for the entire operation, which was the main reason why speed (and some strong helpers to hold the patient down) mattered.

The biggest killer was factor number three. Germs.

Not that they knew that, of course. The prevailing opinion was that wound infections were caused by air, though how nobody quite knew. They had no way of knowing that the surgeon’s hands and clothes, the bed sheets, the surgical instruments, the dressings, and a myriad of other surfaces that would come into contact with the patient were covered with organisms too tiny to see, but that would infect the wound. Most people sickened. More than half died.

Keep out the air to keep out the contagion

Some hospitals did pretty well. Their theory was that the infective element was carried in noxious fumes; that is, if it smelled like bad air, it would be bad for their patient. Alexander Monro (Primus and Secundus), a father and son team who headed the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, must have run a clean operation. They managed to get the death rate for amputations down to eight percent. Given that other hospitals of the time managed rates of 45 to 65 percent, that’s truly impressive.

Most surgeons relied on speed to limit the amount of time the wound was exposed to the air, thus—they hoped—cutting down on the damage the air did to the tissues.

More butchery than medicine

So a fast surgeon was far more likely to be a successful surgeon for three reasons: less blood flow, a shorter time of acute agony, and (they thought) less contagion. No wonder that, to the rest of the human race, surgery seemed more a matter of butchery than medicine.

Naturally, as they thought at the time, physicians did not perform surgery. Physicians had, since medieval times, been university trained. They were gentlemen’s sons with a medical doctorate, highly educated and knowledgeable about the humours of the body and the appropriate ways to balance them. In theory, their superior knowledge made them the only proper people to practice medicine and oversee surgery. They did not involve themselves in physical labour, but expected rather to command those who distilled the medicines they prescribed (apothecaries) or who carried out operations they deemed necessary.

Surgeons, barber surgeons and apothecary surgeons

Specialist surgeons learned their craft on the job, working as a surgeon’s mate in the navy or the army, or as the apprentice to a barber surgeon or an apothecary surgeon.

Barbers were good men with a blade, so an obvious choice for removing some part that shouldn’t be there or performing a beneficial bloodletting. The familiar red and white barber’s pole dates from the time of the barber surgeon, representing the rod the patient held tightly during the operation and the bloodied and clean bandages used. When washed and hung to dry, they would twist together in the wind, forming the spiral we see today.

Apothecary surgeons had won a landmark case in the first decade of the eighteenth century, when an apothecary was taken to court by the Guild of Physicians for compounding and administering medicines without the benefit of a physician’s advice. The Physicians won, but the Society of Apothecaries appealed to the House of Lords, who were unimpressed with the argument that allowing apothecaries to care for the sick would:

“Deprive the gentry of one of the processions by which their younger sons might honourably subsist and be a great detriment to the Universities.”

The Lords reversed the judgement.

The rise of a profession

By the eighteenth century, surgeons were giving physicians a run for their money, some attending university as well as learning their craft by apprenticeship. However, they seldom had any formal qualifications before the Royal College of Surgeons was founded in London in 1800. They were ‘Mister’ compared to the physician’s more prestigious ‘Doctor’, though the brilliant work of a plethora of eighteenth century surgeons raised their status and the work of medical teaching hospitals such as the Royal Infirmary mentioned above raised their knowledge.

By the time Victoria ascended the throne, the confidence of surgeons, and the income they could command, had risen to the point that the cheeky surgeons made the former insulting honorific into a badge of honour. In the UK, Eire and New Zealand to this day, surgeons are called ‘Mister’ rather than ‘Doctor’.

Jude Knight’s writing goal is to transport readers to another time, another place, where they can enjoy adventure and romance, thrill to trials and challenges, uncover secrets and solve mysteries, delight in a happy ending, and return from their virtual holiday refreshed and ready for anything.

She writes historical novels, novellas, and short stories, mostly set in the early 19th Century. She writes strong determined heroines, heroes who can appreciate a clever capable woman, villains you’ll love to loathe, and all with a leavening of humour.

A Raging Madness is out May 9th. Stop by our sister blog today to see surgery in action in a new excerpt and enter two giveaways!