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The History of Surgery

Written by Natalie Samara

Edited by Sharon Park and Shania Sheth

Hey everyone! We are starting off our surgery week with this article on the history of surgery, by Natalie! We hope you enjoy reading and learn about surgery in the past!



In the world we live in today, specifically in the field of medicine, surgery is more common and one of the most effective forms of treatment among patients with diseases, injuries, and disorders that are curable and treatable. Surgery is a form of treatment that doctors use to treat patients with a disease, injury, and other disorders that can be manually treated with the surgical instruments and procedures needed. The advancement of surgical procedures has developed for centuries, with a lot of trials, errors, research, and experimentation, so these procedures are highly effective and safe nowadays. History has shown how ancient civilizations encountered those treatments that were not available to them, and the special surgical tools surgeons that are used now. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, surgery was not taught in universities and people used a knife to operate on patients and it was their own responsibility or when it was called on by a physician to do so.

Ancient Surgical Tools

Before the 19th century:

Surgery was explored by early “surgeons” in which they were able to know human anatomy and organ systems, the most notable findings for example in 6500 BCE, skulls were found in France showing signs of rudimentary surgery called trepanation that involves drilling a hole in the skull. Another notable example is English Barbers and surgeons from the “United Barber - Surgeons Company” and in which they performed medical practices by extracting teeth and bloodletting. There are other surgical procedures physicians have performed such as amputations of extremities in the body, excision of tumors, and removal of stones from the urinary bladder. Using the right anatomical knowledge, it helped enable surgeons to operate more rapidly, but what was not developed is what's known as anesthesia. In the 1800’s, surgeons used opium or alcohol on patients who were tied down and caused them to go into a deep sleep in three to five minutes. Anesthesia was not introduced until 1846, and it helped to accentuate the frequency and severity of surgical infections of the patients. The emergence of this technique marked the beginning of modern surgery.

Bloodletting in Ancient Times

19th century:

This century was known as the “birth of surgery”, since the discoveries made in the 19th century were the first surgical procedures that are still used today. For example, when the first transfusion of blood was performed in 1818, consequently the first successful heart surgery was performed Provident Hospital in Chicago to repair a defect in the lining of the heart (pericardium). An x-ray was performed in Germany in 1895, within a year later in 1896, the first ever open-heart surgery was performed in Germany to fix a stab wound in the muscle where the right ventricle is.

First Blood Transfusion

20th century:

By the 20th century, there were many major advances which not only made surgery safe and effective but enabled the treatment of a wide range of medical conditions such as kidney disease, cystic fibrosis, and heart defects. Before the 1920’s, there were not many medications that were able to treat curable diseases if the patient could not be operated on. It was not until 1928 when antibiotics were discovered and has increasingly helped patients eliminate or slow the growth of bacteria in their body. As years and years went by with more advances, some of them such as transplants, defects in the body, and the first IVF was performed in 1978. IVF is a form of in-vitro fertilization where a test tube enters your body.

IVF Treatment Diagram

21st century:

Nowadays in modern medicine, surgery is still effective and safer, and every year new innovations are introduced, allowing surgeries that were once required for patients to stay longer in the hospital, now able to be done in outpatient centers. Among the most landmark of this century, like the first near-total face transplant in 2008 that was performed at the Cleveland clinic, and the world’s first full face transplant in 2010 in Spain. There are other transplants such as the first penis transplant performed in South Africa in 2014, and two years after that was the first uterus transplant at the Cleveland clinic in 2016. Surgery would not be what it is today without all these techniques and procedures that have become common in fixing and operating on individuals who have a treatable disease, injury, and more.

Face Transplant Before and After


Thanks for reading the first article in our Surgery series! We hope you learned about the progression of surgery, and how healthcare has developed over time.

If you enjoyed reading this article, check out Natalie's other article on her personal experiences living with Spinal Bifida, linked here.

Until next time,

Natalie and the Writing Committee :)


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