Yesterday I posted this photo of an unknown Lanark County gal and June Pitry on the LCGS thought she had lost a leg but Beck Baxter from Tales of Carleton Place said:
I said to myself, “Thank God!”
Tons of people hate going to the doctor, and hate the possibility of going into surgery even more. People often ask “What if it hurts?” or “What if I wake up while I’m under?” These are common fears that we have when we’re most vulnerable, despite the fact that doctors and surgeons are highly trained professionals. Hospitals are, for the most part, incredibly clean institutions, or at least cleaner than they’ve ever been.
However, this wasn’t true back in Victorian times. Though Victorians saw introductions to modern surgical advances like aesthetics and the concept of germs, surgery was a bleak and unforgiving practice before these developments. Unfortunately, many patients died from these “advancements.”
Not all medicines were safe! Amputation was prevalent during periods of war. Three of every four operations were amputations. When an amputation was performed, the patient was given wine to drink so that the pain would be reduced. The doctor also soaked a rag with chloroform and applied it to the patient’s mouth and nose.
He would, however, need to periodically remove the rag to avoid chloroform poisoning from occurring. The surgeon first used a tourniquet to tie off the blood flow. Many patients died of shock or terrible pain after the surgeries.
Joseph Townend was born into an impoverished Methodist family in Yorkshire in 1806. When he was a young child, he attempted to lift a kettle from its “reekon” (the pot-hook) when his apron caught fire. He remembered “being laid upon the floor” and having his wounds “saturated with treacle, in order to extract the fire”. His burns were extensive and, when they healed, his right arm was fused to his side. Years later, when he was working in a cotton mill, he decided to go to the Manchester Infirmary to have his arm separated.
Once at the hospital, a male attendant wound a thick bandage over his eyes, then led him up an alley to the operating theatre, which was packed with medical students. A surgeon gruffly warned: “Now, young man, I tell you, if when you feel the knife you should jerk, or even stir – you will do it at the hazard of your life.” Anaesthetics such as chloroform would not be invented for another 23 years and no analgesic (such as whiskey or laudanum) was offered. All Townend could hope for was a well-sharpened knife and the surgeon’s experienced hands.
I’m convinced that if needed to undergo surgery back then, I would have rather actively denied that I had a broken limb and just live my life in pain. Could you imagine getting a leg amputated for a fracture?
Things you Didn’t Know About Surgery in the 1800s
Barbers often carried out basic surgical tasks, especially during war.
The earliest surgical anaesthetic was called Ether. It put the patient under, but also induced vomiting and was quite flammable. This was tricky, as operating rooms were lit by candlelight.
Only the poor stayed in hospitals. The wealthy would pay a doctor to attend to them at home.
Any limb with a fracture that pierced the skin had to be amputated.
Many surgeons took pride in wearing their frock coats, still coated with blood.
Surgery was not even considered medicine. Physicians were seen as high class. Surgeons were on par with butchers.