Student Blog: The History of Surgery


In the Surgeons’ Hall Museum, in Edinburgh, there are some fascinating discoveries about surgery in the past. Surgery dates go back to prehistoric times and developed extraordinarily since then. There have been previous attempts in anaesthesia and different drugs were used to help patients with diseases. 

Sushruta Samhita – Source: Wikipedia

In Egypt and India there were many records describing the ancient surgical procedures such as the Sushruta Samhita– this was an Indian text, which was very significant in the 6th century. It was a text on medicine and surgery, that describes operations: from removing cataracts to the reconstruction of noses.

Preventing the spread of infections

Through the years, surgeons and doctors have used different tools and drugs to heal patients from diseases and infections.


Amputation was used to prevent infections spread from one part from someone’s body to another part.

Unlike the 21st century, in the mid-18th century, amputation was the first treatment towards diseases rather than the last treatment. Nowadays, surgeons try antiseptics as their first procedure to prevent the spread of infections and amputation is last. Back in the 1700s, they did not have other treatments, so reasonably, amputation was the first thing.

Saw used for amputation – Picture from the Surgeons’ Hall Museum

Bleeding Bowl

During the 16th and 17th centuries, bleeding was a common treatment to get rid of diseases in one’s body. The diseased person would have had to bleed a certain amount to “get rid” of the disease- however, this was just a theory. 


Apothecaries were pharmacists who made up prescriptions and sold pills, potions and other remedies, such as:

  • Cardamom: A spice that helps with sore throats or gum infections.
  • Cinnamon: It helped with digestive problems, abdominal pains, nausea or diarrhoea.
  • Ginger: It helped with nausea and it improved a person’s appetite.
  • Liquorice: Liquorice it’s a herb that helps with colds, inflamed throats and it helps to clear mucus from the airways.

John Hunter

John Hunter was a very significant surgeon in his day. He learned about anatomy when he helped his older brother, William, with dissections in ‘William’s Anatomy School’ in Central London, beginning in 1748. Hunter worked with James Spence, a Scottish dentist, conducting tooth transplants and later on he collaborated with Edward Jenner, the inventor of the smallpox vaccine.

In 1764, John Hunter set up his own anatomy school in London.


Anaesthesia is the loss of sensation and it is used in surgical procedures so the patient would not feel any pain.

Early Anaesthesia

Anaesthesia is a little more than 150 years old; before, patients had to endure the pain during surgery (e.g. amputation), so there were early attempts to control the pain using herbs or drugs.

In 1275, Raymond Lullus, a Spanish physician, made a flammable liquid which he called ‘sweet vitriol’. In the 16th century, Paracelsus, a Swiss physician, made chickens breathe it- he noticed that the chickens fell asleep and felt no pain; in the 18th-century scientists renamed this chemical ‘ether’- a hundred years later it was used as a surgical anaesthetic.

Ether and chloroform were two types of anaesthetics and they both helped the patients to not scream or kick with agony when the surgery took place. However, ether and chloroform are no longer used nowadays as newer and safer drugs continue to develop.

Aseptic Technique

This is a collection of medical practises to help protect patients from dangerous germs: bacteria, viruses and microorganisms are everywhere, so using the aseptic technique can help equipment (and therefore patients) from being contaminated.

Joseph Lister, a British surgeon, invented and developed antiseptics which are chemicals used to destroy the germs that cause infections. He has found a way to prevent infections in wounds during and after surgery which helped lots of patients carry out a healthy life.

Modern Anaesthesia

Modern anaesthesia is very safe and efficient. There are three main types of anaesthesia:

General anaesthesia

This puts the patient to sleep and they, therefore, remain in a state of unconsciousness. Before the operation, anaesthetic drugs can either be injected into the patient’s vein or given to them as anaesthetic gases that they can breathe into their lungs. However, general anaesthesia is not always necessary or advisable for all operations.

Regional anaesthesia

This type can be used to numb large areas of someone’s body, and therefore this means they don’t have to be asleep. There are three types of regional anaesthesia:

  • Spinal: Spinal anaesthesia is often used for urinary tract, genital or lower body procedures. This is for operations below the waist or pelvic region and it makes the patient completely numb from the waist down for a couple of hours.
  • Epidural: Epidural anaesthesia is mainly used for surgery of the lower abdomen and legs. It is often used for childbirth. However, it can also be used to help control the pain after surgery on the belly or chest.
  • Regional nerve block: The regional nerve block is an anaesthetic, and/or anti-inflammatory injection, which is targeted towards a specific nerve (or group of nerves) to treat pain. With this injection, the pain signal travelling from a certain location in the body is “turned off”, or the inflammation in that area diminishes.

Regional anaesthesia is used frequently to avoid the possible side effects of general anaesthesia. In addition, regional anaesthesia can be very useful for people who are frail to be treated with general anaesthesia.

Sometimes, a regional anaesthetic is also used alongside a general anaesthetic.

Local anaesthesia

This technique is usually performed by a surgeon or GP in minor surgery- it is often used for short and simple operations, like stitching a wound or removing a mole. Local anaesthesia does not necessarily have to be injected; for example, it can be cream on the skin (where the surgery will take place).

Summary of my trip

I had a great time in the museum in Edinburgh: I learned lots about the surgery itself and its history and development through time. It was very fun and interesting to learn about this subject in medicine, especially when I’ve been thinking of becoming a surgeon myself.

Written by Zoe, a Year 9 Student at Harris Academy Bromley 

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