Reality of Early Medicine

Reality of Early Medicine  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Garth's Auctions.

Imagine being held down on a table by four burly guys as someone attempts to remove your gallbladder without any pain medication beyond a swig of whiskey.

Not a pleasant picture.

It didn’t occur to early surgeons to wash their hands.  They didn’t realize their hands were full of bacteria.  Whether you would even survive the whole surgical process was anybody’s guess.

Some surgeons did try to make patients sleepy before amputating a limb.  They came up with concoctions of herbs, drugs and wine that often put their patients to sleep permanently.  It wasn’t until 1846 that ether was used to anesthetize patients.

“After cutting through the skin and muscle you come to the bared bone,” wrote a surgeon in the 1500s.  “Cut it with a little saw.  Then smooth the bone that the saw has made rough.” 

How about that for a line of attack?    

It didn’t occur to early surgeons to wash their hands.  They didn’t realize their hands were full of bacteria.  Whether you would even survive the whole surgical process was anybody’s guess.

Nowadays you might take an Excedrin to get to rid of a headache.  In 1880 a doctor could knock a hole in your head with a chisel to let the pain out.  It must have been a good strategy because skulls dating back 10,000 years have been found with as many as five holes in them.  Some of the holes are two inches wide.

Whether they were trying to cure headaches or release evil spirits is uncertain.  Seemed like a good idea to somebody.  Archaeologists concluded many surgical wounds healed and patients actually survived.

Bones, sticks and stones made good early scalpels and the Ancient Aborigines devised a no-nonsense approach for setting broken arms.  They dug wet clay out of the ground, wrapped it around the broken arm and then let it dry in the sun.  It set solid just like a modern-day plaster cast. 

In cold climates wounds were packed with snow.  In warm climates hot sand or leaves were used.

By the 1700s medical students were digging up dead bodies to see how they worked.  Body snatchers made easy money digging up graves and selling them to surgeons for research who didn’t have the time or inclination to do it themselves. 

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in surgery were even offered.

As you might guess, wars resulted in some of the worst injuries.  Field hospitals were setup during the Civil War and they were grimy.  Wounds quickly became infected and patients died.  Surgeons were happy if half of their patients survived.

The earliest X-ray machines were used in World War I.  This was a huge breakthrough because surgeons could now see bullets buried in bodies.  By World War II, new ways of treating pilots scalded from escaping burning planes emerged.

There has been more advancement in surgery in the last 50 years than any time in history.  From heart transplants to Laser technology, the innovations keep coming. 

On Sept-2-3, Garth’s Auctions featured a selection of vintage medical equipment from the medical collection of Dr. and Mrs. Robert Megna.

Medical Equipment

Medical Kit; England 19th century; brass pump kit with ivory handle;  $264.

Surgical Kit; Chidsey & Partridge, Boston, Mass., late-19th century; includes saw, scalpels, and other cutting instruments;  $264.

Portrait of a Physician; oil on board; European School; 18th century; 16 ½ inches by 13 ½ inches;  $705.

Trephine Kit; (surgical instruments) cased; five instruments; saw; and trephine, two galts, and elevator;  $823.

Bleeding Cups; 5; France; 19th century;  $1,175.

Minor Surgical Kit; cased; 19th century; rosewood case; includes 14 ivory handled cutting instruments; and eight steel instruments including forceps;  $1,293.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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