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Surgery and Amputation
During this period a deep cut could lead to infection, and the only treatment for infections was amputation and cauterization. However, hospitals and medical instruments were hardly if ever sanitized, so one could often come out of the hospital worse than when one went in (Bloodwiki). It was not uncommon for a person to survive a surgery only to be set upon by diseases such as hospital gangrene and septicaemia (Youngson 29). Youngson describes hospitals as “dark and overcrowded, ill-run and insanitary. It was not uncommon to see in the same ward, at the same time, cases of, (let us say) typhoid fever, erysipelas, pneumonia, rickets, dysentery; nor was it uncommon to see two patients in the same bed” (Youngson 24). Anesthesia was not used in surgeries until 1846, so prior to that the patient was completely conscious when they operated on him or her, unless the patient passed out from pain. Patients were uneager to be cut into while they were awake: “Dragged unwillingly or carried from the ward to the operating theatre by a couple of hospital attendants (in Edinburgh a large wicker basker was used for this purpose) the patient was laid on the operating table and if necessary strapped down” (Youngson 27). The tools used in surgeries can be seen here.
Anesthetics were not used in surgery until October 16, 1846, in Massachusetts General Hospital (Youngson 51). The anesthesia was a inhaled gas known as ether. In 1847 a doctor by the name of James Simpson popularized chloroform as an alternative to ether. According to Simpson chloroform could do more with less, act faster and last longer than ether, is more pleasing to the senses than ether, and is cheaper (qtd. in Youngson 70). Chloroform also did not need an inhaling device like ether did; it could be placed on a piece of cloth and work just as well (Youngson 70).
One of the leading surgeons of the time was also the first surgeon to use antiseptics in surgery. Joseph Lister believed that infections were a result of bacteria. He used various methods to fight the bacteria, constantly changing his methods over the years. He even went so far as to use vaporizing sprays in the surgery areas (Connor). His original method, developed in March of 1847, to keep a wound sterilized was to “[use] [carbolic acid] to clean a wound, and then [apply] a piece of lint, soaked in the acid, as a dressing, covered by a slightly larger piece of thin tin or sheet lead in order to prevent evaporation of the acid.
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Connor, J.T.H. Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Victorian Revolution in Surgery. April 2004. 15 March 2005
Youngson, A.J. The Scientific Revolution in Victorian Medicine. New York: Holmes & Meier Publisher, 1979.
Victorian Medicine-Bloodwiki . January 2005. 15 March 2005