Surgery in the Renaissance

Surgery, though crude and painful, did exist in the time of the Renaissance. Early Renaissance surgeons were ignorant of the human body and surgical procedures were almost never successful. They were continuously trying to unveil the mysteries of the body. How and why it functioned, its purposes, and its needs. Dissections uncovered the most knowledge of the body. However, dissections were rare because they were illegal and very risky. If a surgeon was going to dissect someone he did it at night and in secrecy. Many admirable surgeons attained their knowledge and experience on the battlefield.

They operated on gunshot wounds, inflicted from the primitive firearms used. (Duin et al. 34) Most of the surgeons poured boiling oil into the flesh wounds to get rid of the infection. This crude form of surgery was proven to be obsolescent when Ambroise Pare, a surgeon at the siege of Turin, discovered a more efficient and less painful way to dress wounds. He used a mixture of egg yolk, rose oil, and turpentine. This method treated patients with less pain, no swelling, and less inflammation than ones treated with boiling oil. (Duin et al.35)

After religious prohibitions on human dissections and surgical operations were weakened, many discoveries and experiments were made. (WB Encyclopedia 60) The surgeon, teacher, and brilliant anatomist Andreas Versalius was the founder of modern medicine. Before his time, Renaissance doctors continued to follow the methods of the ancient Greeks. They relied mostly on the works and discoveries of Galen, a Greek physician of the 2nd Century AD. He based most of his conclusions about human anatomy from dissections on Barbary Apes.

As a student attending the University of Padua, Versalius made his own ideas of the human anatomy. He conducted and performed dozens of dissections, as well as collecting bones from the graveyards, public gallows, and mortuaries. This experience made his ideas and conclusions even more accurate. He was such an outstanding student that he won his degree in medicine at the age of 23. The next day the university appointed him Professor of Surgery. By this time had clearly discovered a large amount.

Before he was out of his twenties he published his findings in The Fabric of the Human Body. This work was illustrated with more than 270 detailed woodcuts. This book made new contentions such as: the gall bladder did not open into the stomach and that there were no bones in the heart. (Hale et al. 91) In 1661 Robert Boyle, ‘the skeptical chemist,’ discovered air was essential for life. And in 1667, Robert Hooke demonstrated his theory that the key to respiration was the circulation of blood in the lungs by inserting a bellows into a dog’s trachea.

(Duin et al. 39) Richard Lower accomplished a successful blood transfusion with a divinity student, Arthur Coga, and a sheep in 1667. (Duin et al. 39) Another successful surgeon was Jean Baptiste Denys. He achieved human and animal transfusions many times. In spite of his success, many deaths occurred afterwards. Thus, the practice was outlawed. All of these achievements gained surgeons equal status with physicians. They earned this honor partly because they were more innovative due to their numerous discoveries.

But the discovery did not stop there. In 1718, a French surgeon, J. L. Petit, found a way to control the flow of blood during thigh amputations by inventing an effective tourniquet. (Duin et al. 40) This was one of the most useful surgical tools used in the Renaissance time because of its effectiveness. It made leg amputations, which were common, much less time consuming. This was a blessing for the patients, considering there were no anesthetics. Claudius Amyand performed the first appendectomy in 1736, while dealing with a boy’s hernia.

This was a major step bearing in mind that abdominal surgery was still very rare in an era with no antiseptics. (Duin et al. 41) Even without antiseptics or anesthetics, surgeons of the Renaissance were able to evolve their practice into a more modern and successful field. They invented several tools and methods to make their operations quicker and more effective. This era, called the Renaissance, was the turning point in history for surgical procedures. Eventually these inventions and methods became the basis for those used today.

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