17th Century Surgeons

Written by valerie taylor
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17th Century Surgeons
This medieval manuscript displays images of early surgical techniques. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Imagine living in a society where people swallowed spiders to cure a fever and used bloodsucking leeches to cure most illnesses. In the 17th century, poor hygiene, frequent plagues, and high death rates among children and infants contributed to an average lifespan of about 40 years. During that era, medical treatment still heavily relied on methods used during by the classical Greeks and Romans, including the balance of body fluids and the interpretation of astrological conditions. Seventeenth-century surgeons lived during an era of medical discovery but typically worked in crude conditions for little pay and poor results.

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Competition Among Medical Practitioners

In medieval times, priests and monks primarily treated the ill and injured. When the pope in the 13th century outlawed clergy exposure to blood, this duty fell to lay people, specifically to the barber familiar with sharp tools and their use. In the early 1600s, academic physicians studied medical philosophy and prescribed medications, but the barber surgeon, who remained on a lower social step as a tradesman, served physicians by performing minor invasive procedures while he also received pay for basic grooming and wig-making. By the end of the century, a limited number of university trained surgeons lived in large cities, limiting their work to medical procedures while barbers and apothecaries provided the majority of the medical treatment for the poor in rural areas.

Duties of the Surgeon

Surgery in the 17th century was dangerous and survival rates low. Early surgeons commonly treated battlefield injuries that evolved from clean knife and sword cuts to broken bones and open wounds caused by artillery. Battlefield amputations occurred frequently while surgeons also extracted infected teeth and removed kidney stones from patients brave enough to endure the procedure. Because it provided a steady source of income, surgeons began to assist women during childbirth, eventually making midwives obsolete. Dutch surgeons first began to perform caesarean births during this century.

Medical Training and Textbooks

While physicians received formal training, barber surgeons acquired hands-on training. Surgeons apprenticed with a master for seven years in order to learn their trade. As the practice of invasive medicine became more sophisticated, universities began to train physicians to perform surgical procedures. William Harvey, an Englishman who discovered the circulatory system through a series of secret dissections, published a text in Latin called "The Anatomical Function of the Movement of the Heart and the Blood of Animals." His controversial findings enlightened and advanced knowledge of the body, which encouraged experimental surgical procedures. John Woodall, a surgeon associated with the Jamestown colony, wrote "The Surgeon's Mate," in which he described the tools of a surgeon along with their practical use.

Tools of the Trade

Seventeenth-century surgeon's tools would appear dirty and grotesque to the modern observer. The existence of bacteria and germs was unknown and tradesmen avoided washing metal tools with water because it encouraged rusting. Instead, surgeons wiped their tools, if they cleaned them at all. Saws, knives, scalpels, clamps, hooks and probes made up the surgeon's arsenal. Some used specialised tools, including a trepan to drill holes in the skull, or a cautery, which when heated and applied to a wound, stopped the flow of blood. The French surgeon Peter Chamberlen invented obstetric forceps, and John Woodall, an English surgeon, sent a 12-inch spatula to the American colonies for treatment of constipation.

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