Sunday, April 10, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Had a fantastic homemade brunch at my uncle's.
  • I've decided that tracking my work hours on this blog is another foolish consistency I'm better off abandoning. I already document them at work, so data generation isn't an issue, and if I have a particularly interesting workday, I can always just mention it here.
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Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 12: Surgery
The peasant suffered from exposure and deforming toil; the artisan's life was confining and sedentary. Some trades had their special afflictions, such as the woolworkers' anthrax and the painters' arsenical or lead poisoning. Physical injuries, no quickly repaired, might well be permanent; a cut might leave a lifelong scar. If a tooth ached, it was often extracted and gone forever. Eye trouble was very common -- ophthalmia, trachoma, tumors, cataracts, blindness. The purblind King John of Bohemia contracted with a doctor to cure his cataract; the doctor failed and was sewn in a sack and cast into the Oder River. One is struck by the number of cripples, stumping or crawling, in medieval genre pictures. Some of the twisted limbs must have been congenital defects or the results of bad midwifery. The legless and handless were often the product of legal mutilation; the sinning hand of a thief might be punished by separating it from the body. Amputation was the usual method of dealing with a compound fracture or with a spreading infection, and it was not unlikely to spread infection further.

Qualified physicians and surgeons were scarce and were apt to confine their practice to the rich and noble. Although medicine suffered from its slavish obedience to classical and Arabic authority, the achievements of surgery were remarkable. Trepanning was common because of the prevalence of head wounds and fractured skulls sustained in battles and tourneys. Operating for hernia, cancer, and gallstones was frequent. Surgeons performed cesarean sections, treated hemorrhages with styptics and ligatures, broke and reset badly joined bones, put fractured limbs into plaster casts. Although it is often said that medieval doctors had no idea of antisepsis, they cauterized wounds and dressed them with old wine, strong in alcohol, and with sterile whites of newly broken eggs, and soothed them with balmy dressings. They practiced an at least partial anesthesia, putting patients to sleep by holding to their noses sponges soaked in opiates, mandragora, and the drowsy syrups of the East. Plastic surgery was performed in the fifteenth century; noses, lips, and ears were build up by skin grafts. Trusses were common, and esophagus tubes were used for artificial feedings.

Physicians, who were learned scholars, felt themselves to be a cut above the surgeons, who were manual workers. Since the surgeons were all too few to meet human needs, most of the operations fell into the hands of barber-surgeons. It took the surgeons centuries to break their association with barbering. Even in eighteenth-century Germany an army surgeon had to shave the higher officers.

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