Tracing the development of surgery from ancient times

This book provides a fascinating depiction of techniques used in surgical procedures throughout the ages.

Book cover of ‘Crucial interventions: an illustrated treatise on the principles and practice of nineteenth century surgery’

Written by a medical historian, this book is a profusely illustrated history of the development of surgical techniques. Its main focus is on surgery’s spectacular progress during the 19th century, when innovations such as anaesthesia and antisepsis led to greater success in surgery and a steady rise in the status of the surgeon to the same level as the physician.

A word of warning: although written with the lay reader in mind, the book is not for the easily shocked. Like the author’s earlier work, ‘The sick rose’ (
Pharmaceutical Journal 2015;294:18
), it contains images that may make the squeamish reader queasy. Its hundreds of illustrations, mainly drawn from surgical and anatomical textbooks in the Wellcome Collection, include many that pull no punches in their depiction of techniques for amputation and other surgical procedures.

The book begins with a scene-setting introduction that traces the development of surgery from ancient times to the beginning of the 19th century. This is followed by eight chapters devoted to specific areas of surgery, arranged anatomically from head to foot. Each chapter consists mainly of 19th century illustrations concerned with surgery on the relevant part of the body, but every chapter also includes an essay on a more general aspect of 19th century surgery.

The first three articles may be of particular interest to pharmacists, since they cover anaesthesia, antisepsis and asepsis. Other essays cover surgical theatre nursing, battlefield surgery, surgery education and the state of surgery at the end of the century. The final article gives a fascinating account of surgery from the perspective of the patient. I particularly like the caption from an 1877 Punch cartoon depicting two surgeons:

“What did you operate on Jones for?”

“A hundred pounds.”

“No, I mean what had he got?”

“A hundred pounds.”

The book has been beautifully designed and produced and is well worth its catalogue price. My only criticism is the decision to print the foreword entirely in capital letters, thereby weakening its readability.


 ‘Crucial interventions: an illustrated treatise on the principles and practice of nineteenth century surgery’ by Richard Barnett. Pp256 £19.95. London: Thames & Hudson; 2015. ISBN 978 0 500 51810 6

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, August 2016, Vol 297, No 7892;297(7892):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2016.20201045

You may also be interested in