Boiling Oil, Red-Hot Irons, 26-Second Amputations: How Surgery Evolved

Henry Marsh in The New York Times:

I find it difficult to imagine being a surgeon in the conditions in which my predecessors had to work — gloveless, covered in blood, with patients physically tied down and screaming in pain, not to mention a postoperative mortality of almost 50 percent. And yet in “Empire of the Scalpel,” Ira Rutkow quotes the 18th-century English surgeon William Cheselden, who wrote of himself: “No one ever endured more anxiety and sickness before an operation, yet from the time that I began to operate, all uneasiness ceased … [I was] never ruffled or disconcerted and [my hand] … never trembled during an operation.”

I can identify with this sentiment across the centuries, despite all the changes since Cheselden’s time. It expresses exactly what I and other surgeons — or “scalpel wielders,” as Rutkow calls us in his somewhat florid style — experience when operating. We have to make a strange transition as we enter the operating room — from caring about patients as fellow human beings to seeing them as objects, albeit living objects with anxious relatives waiting outside. It is a difficult balancing act between empathy and detachment, and the intense self-belief that surgery involves can lead us to become very fixed in our opinions. We feel threatened by any suggestion that there are better ways of doing things than the ways that have served us well for many years.

More here. (Note: For my brother, Dr. Syed Tasnim Raza, the ultimate surgeon, and historian of Medicine, par excellence)