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Graphic Illustrations That Reveal The Horror of Surgery During the Nineteenth Century





Have you ever wondered how things were done before surgery was considered safe and before the operating room was considered sterile?

Well, you’re about to find out.

A recent publication entitled Crucial Interventions vividly illustrates how some surgeries were performed during the nineteenth century – the period that witnessed the complete revolution of the practice of surgery, when antisepsis was introduced, and when barbers stopped performing surgical procedures. Some illustrations are morbidly graphic, it just makes me cringe! Imagine if the surgical procedures are still performed this way today.

Strabismus, a condition where the eyes are abnormally aligned, is corrected by dividing the internal muscles of the eyeball to make the eye look at the proper direction.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection
Resection of the lower jaw.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection
Compression of the arteries in the arm and leg in an attempt to reduce blood loss during surgery.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

This painting depicts how pioneering Scottish surgeon Robert Liston performs a surgical procedure with anesthesia. He operated with a knife gripped between his teeth, and can amputate a leg in less than three minutes.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

The operating theaters were noisy and crowded, and surgeons and their assistants were dressed in their street clothes. The patients were, uh, fortunate, to be awake during the procedure.

These are surgical instruments used for orthopedic procedures.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

Surgery was like a death sentence before antisepsis was introduced – it would have been better to live with whatever disease you had than undergo surgery and risk contact with the gazillions of bacteria that reside in the instruments.

The anatomy of the armpit.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

The photo above shows how the blood vessels are tied using a string to stop the blood flow, a procedure called ligature.

This was how toes were amputated.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection
Anatomical sites for ligature of blood vessels in the forearm and elbow joint.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection
The surgery for tongue cancer got me tongue-tied.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection
The image below shows ligature of the femoral artery using sutures and a suture hook.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

The abdomen is compressed to reduce blood flow from the aortic artery.

A cross-section of the brain.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

The head-to-toe atlas of the human body helped surgeons learn how to save the lives of their patients and allowed them to put new knowledge into practice.

The muscles and blood vessels of the wrist and hand.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection
Dissection revealed the aorta and the major blood vessels of the thorax and abdomen.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection
The large intestine, front and back view.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection
Dissection of the thorax showing the position of the heart, lungs, kidneys, and major blood vessels.


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

Crucial Interventions provides us a glimpse at the evolution of surgery during the nineteenth century and gives us an insight on how it developed into a branch of medicine that helps save millions of lives.

Pretty cool, huh?


Photo credit: Wellcome Collection
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