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Morbidly Beautiful Pictures Reveal The Horror Of Surgery In The Victorian Era

How to slice a human body. WARNING: Graphic images, obviously.

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Crucial Interventions: An Illustrated Treatise on the Principles and Practice of Surgery is a book that sums up every terror about surgery and medicine you ever had.

Surgery to correct strabismus (abnormal alignment of the eyes) which involved the division of the internal muscles of the eyeball so the eye would point in the right direction.

A follow-up to the award-winning The Sick Rose, Richard Barnett's latest book is a medical history of the 19th century, a time that saw a complete revolution of the practice and reputation of surgery.


Or as he put it: “The blood and the bawling, the last-ditch butchery, and the pervasive threat of death.”

It was the century that anaesthesia and antisepsis were introduced.

It was when surgery stopped being a job carried out by local barbers.

A painting depicting one of the first British operations carried out with anaesthesia by pioneering Scottish surgeon Robert Liston. He operated with a knife gripped between his teeth, and could amputate a leg in under three minutes.

Prior to this, operations were carried out as fast as possible in the hopes of minimising pain, shock, and blood loss. Mortality rates were high.


You had pretty good reasons to be scared of the doctor.

Before antisepsis, a medical intervention could be worse than just living with whatever it was you had. The surgical instruments could be crawling with infectious bacteria.


So even if you made it through the screaming pain of surgery, there could be more horrors to come — sometimes fatal.

Well into the 1840s, operating theatres were noisy, dirty, and crowded.

Surgeons and their assistants were dressed in street clothes, and patients were awake for their ordeal.

But within two generations, operating theatres came to resemble laboratories.

Sterile, safer.


Through medical images from the Wellcome Library – textbooks, treatises of anatomy, atlases of the body – Crucial Interventions tells the story of how surgeons started to get to grips with the human body.

It’s partly a story about new technologies, like anaesthesia and antisepsis, but it’s also a cultural and political story about the transformation in the status of surgeons.

Where once surgery was a job shared by the guys on the high street who cut your hair, now surgeons were medical men, welcomed members of the aristocracy.


These beautiful, morbid, and sometimes wildly gross images show surgeons putting new knowledge into practice: a top-to-toe atlas of the human body and the ways in which surgeons believed it could go wrong.

They're crucial to the history of where we ended up.

They show surgeons figuring out the complexities of the human body.

They show surgeons thinking about how they can improve the lives of their patients.

But also, at the same time, how they can save them.


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