Ambroise Paré; Medieval Surgeon

Studying the history of Western medicine and surgery is interesting in that they are quite separate things from one another. The Catholic church decreed that physicians could never “draw blood” and so their treatments were predominantly medicinal. If you needed anything done surgically you went to the barber. Eventually both of these aspects of medicine merged but that wasn’t until the Modern era in Europe. Interestingly, this is why surgeons in England are referred to as “Mr/Ms/Mrs” and physicians are referred to as “Dr.” (save that in your random medical trivia box). Occasionally you had figures in history who bridged the gap between the two schools, which was a daunting task. Even more rare was the historical figure who defied the Greco-Roman medical tradition and advanced medical science. One such figure was a French surgeon named Ambroise Paré. Paré’s story usually revolves around his role as a military surgeon.


On Paré’s first excursion with the French army they trekked over the Alps in an attempt to invade Italy. En route they encountered a garrison in a small town and engaged in a quick battle. Pare describes entering the town after the battle.

We entered pell-mell into the city, and passed over the dead bodies, and some not yet dead, hearing them cry under our horses’ feet; and they made my heart ache to hear them. And I truly repented that I had left Paris to see such a pitiful spectacle. Being come into the city, I entered into a stable, thinking to lodge my own and my man’s horse, and found four dead soldiers, and three propped against the wall, their features all changed, and they neither saw, heard, nor spake, and their clothes were still smouldering where the gunpowder had burned them. As I was looking at them with pity, there came an old soldier who asked me if there were any way to cure them. I said no. And then he went up to them and cut their throats, gently, and without ill will towards them. Seeing this great cruelty, I told him he was a villain: he answered he prayed God, when he should be in such a plight, he might find someone to do the same for him, that he should not linger in misery.

Back then, battlefield medicine was very… rudimentary, to put it lightly. If they felt there was nothing to be done to help you then hopefully you were helped along with the dying process as described above. Paré came along at a time when gunpowder and muskets were becoming the predominant weapon of war. At this time, the main method of treating gunshot wounds was to pour boiling oil into the wounds to cauterize them. Did you have a limb hacked off in battle? Cauterize it with red hot iron. Need to have a limb amputated? They’re going to cauterize it with hot iron as they amputate so you don’t bleed out. The problem with cauterization, as Paré discovered, is that it often caused the patient to go into shock and die, or spreads infection and the patient dies, or it doesn’t actually stop the bleeding of a major artery and the patient dies. In fact, cauterization probably caused just as much death as battle wounds themselves.


He looks so nonchalant about having red hot metal jammed into his leg.

Paré found himself busy as ever during a battle. The wounded came pouring in with gunshot wounds; he kept the oil burning hot and cauterized as many wounds as he could. Then he ran out of oil. In a moment of panic he remembered the ingredients for a salve that might be useful; anything was better than nothing. So he mixed egg yolks, rose oil and turpentine (which, while toxic, has antibiotic properties) and applied it to the gunshot wounds. The day came to a close and he laid awake all night worrying about the patients he could only treated with the salve. The next morning he went to where the wounded were kept and made a startling observation: those who had their wounds cauterized with oil were feverish, their wounds were inflammed and their prognosis was not very good. The soldiers who were treated with the salve were in good spirits, slept through the night, were not feverish and the wounds were healing. So Paré made a medical discovery through the scientific method though he had very little idea about such a philosophy.

Then I resolved never more to burn thus cruely poor men with gunshot wounds.

Paré also proved the value of ligating blood vessels instead of just cauterizing them shut; he invented what would become one of the first hemostats to clamp vessels shut. He also made contributions in the fields of anatomy, prosthetics and obstetrics.


He was trying to create a cyborg.

Paré went on to become the personal surgeon to several kings of France and continued to revolutionize medicine until he died when he was eighty.

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