(Photo Credit: Medicine: The Definitive Illustrative History)
Gunshot wounds are destructive menaces that tear through flesh and splinter bone. Bullets can drag clothing fragments, skin, and shrapnel deep into the injury and the victim can die from sever hemorrhaging, shock, and infection. It was 1537 and the twenty seven year old Frenchman, Ambroise Paré, had been appointed as a battlefield surgeon during the siege of Turin (Hollingham 55). Paré’s only medical experience came from his days spent apprenticing his older brother as a barber-surgeon ( Parker 79). Barber-surgeons were exactly what they sounded like; they were barbers that sometimes bled a patient or sliced open an unsightly boil (think very basic medical treatments). Most of the time the gentlemen in the profession lacked official training, and instead, chose to learn as they went along. On the battlefield, Ambroise Paré, and his fellow medical staff, faced a major dilemma. Men suffering from gunshot wounds were dying left and right. Many bled out during or after surgical procedures while others developed sever infections and distress.
(Photo Credit: Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History)
In order to fully comprehend what Mr. Paré was dealing with, we first need to understand how bleeding was often handled in a surgical setting. Gunshot wounds, which bled profusely, were often treated for bleeding in two ways. Option number one was utilized usually if the patient had a smaller wound or if they were to undergo an amputation. The gushing stump would be cauterized by holding a scolding hot iron to the skin (Hollingham 56). If the wound covered a large surface area then the second option was usually enlisted; boiling oil (Hollingham 56). Yes, boiling oil would be poured into the laceration in order to burn all surrounding tissue and stop excessive bleeding. At the time, it was a common belief that the bullets and gunpowder were poisonous to the body and that boiling oil had the ability to detoxify the individual as well as stop the bleeding (Parker 78). Patients would scream in agony while being treated and would suffer sever pain long after. On day, while treating soldiers per usual, Ambroise Paré discovered that he had completely run out of boiling oil. Instead, he mixed up a batch of ointment that contained ingredients like rose oil, turpentine, and egg yolks (Parker 79). The next day, on his rounds, he noticed that the patients who were treated with the oil were restless and their wounds were inflamed. On the other hand, those who had the ointment applied to them were reasonably comfortable and seemed to be healing properly (Pickover 74).
It was at that moment that Ambroise Paré decided that gentler medical treatments had the potential to be just as effective, if not more so, than the abrasive ones. He still had one issue though; blood loss. Patients whose severed arteries were cauterized during surgery were still dying oftentimes because they lost too much blood while on the operating table. His goal was to seal off the arteries and veins; hoping to prevent more fatalities caused from hemorrhaging. (Hollingham 57). One of his first inventions was the crow’s beak; curved forceps that could be used to clamp down an artery so that the surrounding veins could be sutured closed using silk thread (Hollingham 57). One downside was the fact that it was difficult to use. Slippery arteries and veins can be quite stubborn to clamp onto (Hollingham 58). The young physician was also one of the first surgeons to promote the tying off of blood vessels during operations and to abandon boiling oil use altogether. His work, The Method of Curing Wounds Made by Gunshot, was first published in French, and was translated into English by 1617 (Hollingham 58).
Ambroise Paré helped raise the status of barber-surgeons everywhere, promoted more humane medical treatments, and tried to lessen the impact of blood loss in battlefield surgery. The most impressive thing about his success is the fact that he had no formal education in medicine. Perhaps his mind was free enough from traditional ways of thinking, thus giving him the ability to rationalize outside of the sphere of medical acceptance. He said this of his experience, “I will tell the truth, I was not very expert at that time in matters of chirurgery; neither was I used to dresse wounds made by gunshot” (Source Book 192). Experience or not, Ambroise Paré managed to improve treatments for battlefield wounds, and for that, we may say “merci!”
(If that didn’t make you grateful for modern medicine, then I don’t know what will!)
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Until Next Time:
- Hollingham, Richard. Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery. New York: St. Martin’s Publishing, 2008.
- Parker, Steve. Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History. New York: DK Publishing, 2016.
- Pickover, Clifford. The Medical Book. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2012.
- Source Book of Medical History. “The first Discourse: VVherein vvounds made by gvnshot are freed from being bvrnt, or cavterizeed according to vigues methode.” Notes by Logan Clending. New York: Dover Publications, 1942.