Sunday, 24 April 2005

Restoration London's surgeons

Restoration London is the period between 1660 and 1670. This period of history witnessed among other things, the Restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, the Great Fire of London and the building of St. Paul's Cathedral by the great architect Christopher Wren. Perhaps the most well-known document of the time is the diary of Samuel Pepys, which provides us with a wealth of information on the everyday life in London of that time. His diary spans almost a decade, from 1660 to 1669, when he had to stop writing because he was losing his eyesight.

Probably one of the most unpleasant times in a person's life in those days, was when they got ill and had to be treated by a surgeon. These were not to be confused with the doctors of the time who were called physicians. Chirurgeons (pronounced 'surgeons') were not especially learned and not regarded as gentlemen, unlike physicians. Their training consisted of a seven-year apprenticeship. They did not attend a university for this. They shared more similarities with barbers as the success of their career was principally based on their skill in using sharp, metal implements. Despite all this, successful surgeons were highly respected in society.

One of the most popular operations surgeons had to perform, was the cutting of the stone. The stones were usually kidney stones in the person's bladder and were apparently very common in the seventeenth century, probably because of the high meat content in the popular diet, as well as the fact that flower was often mixed with chalk (for a whitening effect). Samuel Pepys, in his diary, describes one of these operations as he had to endure one himself. He was only 25 years old at the time. Anaesthesia had not yet been invented, neither had the importance of cleanliness as a preventor of infection been realised. As a result, most people died of either shock from the horrific pain caused by the incision, sepsis caused by the use of infected instruments or both. A surgeon specialising in the removal of these kidney stones had to be extremely quick and dexterous. The patient was put to lie on a table, tied up and then the surgeon would make a quick 3-inch incision. He would have about 50 seconds to find the stone and remove it. The fact that Samuel Pepys survived this monstrous ordeal probably had alot to do with the fact that the table had been scrubbed clean before the operation by his cousin, and most importantly Samuel was the first patient to be seen on that day, so the surgeon's hands and instruments were fairly clean (instruments were not washed in between operations but only at the end of the day).

Intriguing information on everyday life in London at this period of time can be found in Lisa Picard's book "Restoration London".

Interview with Liza Picard.


Light said...

Heh. There was a dramatisation of Pepys' life on BBC last year (Steve Coogan played Pepys). They dramatised the operation; any man watching it will have had his legs crossed and been howling in despair...

Alterior said...

Too true.. :-)