28 November 2023
Guest post: Why should you care about the history of surgery?
4 March 2021
Why should you care about the history of surgery?
To begin with, it is unquestionably fascinating and fun. The history of surgery is filled with heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies, progress and setbacks, but continuously moves towards the easing of suffering and the protection and prolonging of life. Yet there is something deeper and more meaningful that can be gained from the study of history. It grounds us, gives us a richer understanding of the world in which we live, and tells us how we arrived at this point in history, and provides a sense of identity and belonging in the world.
The knowledge we now possess finds its origins in the writings of Hippocrates and Galen and the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome, which is reflected in the Latin and Greek roots of the words of the ‘lingua franca’ of medicine that we use every day. This was preserved and advanced during the Dark Ages by the physicians and surgeons of the Islamic Golden Age, and then “rediscovered” in the Renaissance, until the scientific revolution of the Age of Enlightenment shook us from the bonds of classical dogma and led to an explosion of medical and surgical knowledge through experimentation. The Industrial Age created added significant technological advances, arguably the most important of which was the ability to inhibit pain and avoid infection, allowing surgeons to delve ever deeper into the mysteries of the human body. This opened the window to the contributions from surgeons from across the globe that have brought us to this moment in time. This accumulated knowledge has been passed down from master to apprentice, teacher to learner, staff to student, in an unbroken chain that directly links us with the surgeons of the past.
Their influence is all around us when we step into the operating theatre, from hand washing (Semmelweiss), to the asepsis of the operative field (Lister), to the wearing of surgical gloves (Halsted) to the countless eponymously named instruments, procedures, and anatomical structures, that are part of every operating theatre around the world. Just about every part of an operation links us to the past, and to the people that came before us who discovered this hard-won knowledge.
Studying these individual surgeons can both inspire us, and serve as a warning by demonstrating how good intentions can lead us astray. In addition to their contributions to surgical practice, many surgeons were basic scientists, Nobel Prize winners, public health advocates, artists, musicians, writers, and influential public figures that captured the imagination of society, both with their innovative breakthroughs and sometimes, their larger than life personalities. The English surgeon Percival Potts discovered the link between chimney sweeping and scrotal cancer in 1775, considered the first identification of an environmental carcinogen. American neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography on Sir William Osler. South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first successful heart transplant, was also an outspoken opponent of apartheid. And there are countless other examples.
Surgeons have also experimented on the unwilling; for example, J. Marion Sims (of Sims retractor fame) did much of his ground-breaking work on obstetrical fistulas on African-American enslaved women in the mid-1800s. A number of surgeons were associated with the Nazi party, including Nobel Prize winner and French surgeon-scientist Alexis Carrel and the pioneering German thoracic surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch. And surgeons have taken part in the eugenics movement and forced sterilization, among other failings. Studying these examples shows us how surgery is not practiced in isolation, but rather affects and is effected by the world, society, and history. Surgeons have the potential to accomplish great things, but are also human, with all the flaws that come with it, and are not immune to the ills that plague society at large. It is important to recognize the bad with the good, and to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
Finally, one of the greatest challenges in medicine and surgery today is the epidemic of burnout, the causes of which are multifactorial, but includes a loss of finding meaning and purpose in work, and a feeling of disconnection. I believe that knowledge of our shared history, and studying those that came before us, can give a sense of identity and meaning to the practice of surgery. In an era of increasingly burdensome administrative tasks, it is easy to feel a sense of detachment and futility. But by studying the history of surgery, a greater sense of being rooted in community and purpose can be nurtured, and inspiration can be found to further the development of surgery towards better treatments and innovations, and to advocate for the patients that, too, have been a part of this shared history.
Part of the charitable activity of the Society, BJS Academy is an online educational resource for current and future surgeons.
The Academy is comprised of five distinct sections: Continuing surgical education, Young BJS, Cutting edge, Scientific surgery and Surgical news. Although the majority of this is open access, additional content is available to BJS subscribers and strategic partners.