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J R Soc Med. 2001 August; 94(8): 423.
PMCID: PMC1281646

A History of Surgery

Reviewed by K S Hindle and S J Hindle

Harold Ellis
264 pp Price £29.50 ISBN 1-84110-023-4 (h/b)
London: Greenwich Medical Media, 2000 .

Professor Ellis is renowned for his lucid prose, and in A History of Surgery he is on top form. The book is well set up to educate and amuse medical readers, particularly those from a surgical background; many non-medical readers, too, will enjoy the gruesome vignettes and be grateful for modern-day treatments.

The author describes in detail the progression of surgical procedures from prehistoric times to the present day, and in the last chapter he glances at the future; parallel accounts of key events in world civilizations offer history lessons in their own right. Selected operations are used to illustrate the advance of surgery from what today seems inconceivable—e.g. limb amputation without anaesthesia—to the modern techniques informed by warfare and science. Some procedures such as tracheostomy, described in detail by Paul of Aegina (625-690 AD), remain pertinent today while others which contributed to the demise of many patients (e.g. bloodletting) were surprisingly slow to disappear. Professor Ellis predicts that, in the 21st century, cancer surgery will be replaced by tablets and that surgeons will revert to being bone-setters, who may well regard present-day surgery as barbaric.

The brilliant amalgamation of detailed historical facts with anecdotes of famous surgeons results not only in a useful reference tool but also in an easily digestible read. Furthermore the author cleverly links famous surgeons by heritage (for example, Hugh Owen Thomas, who invented the eponymous splint that is still in use today, was the uncle of Sir Robert Jones) or by marriage (Joseph Lister, was James Syme's son-in-law), to remind us how the art of surgery was often passed from one generation to another and learnt as an apprenticeship. Professor Ellis was himself taught by some of the great surgeons of the day and his enthusiasm for passing on knowledge leaps from the pages. The book is illustrated with many classical and original pictures from different sources, including the author's own collection. Particularly eye-watering are the seventeenth century figures depicting a breast amputation followed by the use of a hot-iron cautery on a bloody wound. (Unfortunately a few of the pictures have been accidentally transposed.) This masterly compilation would be an ornament to any collection of books on surgical history.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press