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The 18th century wasn’t exactly known for its stellar surgical techniques. Chances are, though, that they did the best they could with what they had and knew.

Truthfully, medical procedures back then probably seemed cutting-edge for the day. While 18th-century surgery is now antiquated, you can track the timeline between then and now to see how modern day surgery was influenced by comparatively barbaric practices.


Healing the sick has been a priority for centuries. Just like today, some 18th-century surgeons got it right while others made huge mistakes.

Medical Treatment in the 18th Century


In the 18th century, John Brown, writer, and lecturer believed that there were only two types of diseases: strong and weak. He also believed that there were only two types of treatments: stimulant and sedative. His prescription? Either alcohol or opium.


Today, we clearly know that disease, sickness, and medical treatment are far more complex than just two types and two solutions. Alcohol and opium are also not seen as legitimate treatments any longer.


Also, not everyone felt the same as Brown back then. Samuel Hahnemann, the creator of homeopathy, took a different approach: He treated medical conditions with small doses of drugs that had effects that resembled the same effects of the disease. While homeopathy has never seen widespread acceptance, it continues to have an impact on how people seek treatment today.

From Leiden to Edinburgh

During the 18th century, the medical school at Leiden in The Netherlands grew and attracted students from abroad, including army surgeon John Monro. Monro felt that Edinburgh, Scotland, should have the same sort of medical school. Monro’s son, Alexander, studied at the Leiden medical school, and three generations of the family went on to teach anatomy in Edinburgh. The city became one of the primary academic centers for medicine in the U.K., and Scottish doctors led the surgery and obstetrics fields in London.

The Truth About 18th-Century Surgery


The discovery of a 300-year-old surgical guidebook revealed much about surgery in the 18th century. While the findings may seem barbaric by today’s standards, they were likely a case of medical professionals doing the best they knew at the time and working with the technologies that were available to them. Here are some of the details that came to light:


●        Surgery was thought to be best performed in the spring or fall because of how the blood behaves during these seasons.

●        Doctors treated flesh wounds with brandy, then covered it with wine (this isn’t too off the mark: Wine can kill germs).

●        When amputating a leg, surgeons would quickly cut with a crooked knife and then cover the stump with leftover skin.


What’s most important to understand about surgery in the 18th century is that it was a last resort — it was common for surgery to result in death, and it didn’t carry with it nearly the same hope modern surgery does. Since anesthesia wasn’t around yet, surgery was only for patients who were in dire circumstances.

The Growing Need for Postmortems


Grave-robbing was illegal in the 18th century, which spurred surgeon John Hunter to conduct post-mortem exams on his patients. In order to convince the public that this was a necessary step, he published an autopsy in the newspapers. Families started to see that there was a lot of value in evaluating a deceased body, and they began giving surgeons permission to do so. His research — some of which was even conducted on his own friends — included experiments on the major systems of the body.

How Surgery Has Improved

Medical technology has advanced to an astonishing level since the 1700s. One of these advancements is robotic technology, which can better diagnose patients and is revolutionizing modern medicine.


Robotic technology for the medical industry includes a few different types of robots: surgical robots, hospital robots, and rehab robots. In the near future, there may be robots that can perform surgical procedures, help with therapeutic recovery, or distribute pills. Many of the technologies that are being used across the IT industry are being adapted for healthcare robots, like gesture control, voice recognition, machine vision, and tactile sensors.


Not only are technology-based advancements improving healthcare overall — they are increasing healthcare access in historically underserved rural areas. Teleconferencing and IoT technology have improved remote access to services, helping those in these locations get the medical help they need.


Of course, we couldn’t have arrived at modern medicine today without the brilliant minds of the past. Giovanni Battista Morgagni also examined postmortem bodies to compare them with pre-death. René Laennec invented the stethoscope. Edward Jenner created the first vaccine in the late 18th century. We also have the 19th century to thank — that’s when anesthesia and antiseptics were discovered.

Modern Medical Errors

In the 18th century, it seemed like surgery and errors — or at least bad outcomes — went hand in hand. Infection or death following surgery wasn’t rare. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the U.S. faced its first medical malpractice case, with a number of lawsuits between 1835 and 1865.


Today, surgery isn’t always the last resort; instead, it’s often the way to improve or save a life. However, while modern medicine has advanced greatly since the 18th century, surgical errors are still happening, and they can have seriously damaging effects.


There are some surgical errors that are so detrimental they’re referred to as “never” events, meaning they should have never occurred. Examples of never events are operating on the wrong body part, performing surgery on the wrong patient, or leaving a surgical tool or device inside the patient.


Even surgical errors that don’t seem as dramatic can still be upsetting or cause major harm. An unsanitary operating room can leave the patient with an infection. If there’s an issue with the anesthesia, the patient can suffer brain damage. While medical malpractice claims are complex, they’re important in order to hold the medical organization accountable.


Tactics that now seem macabre were once the newest thing to hit the medical world. It makes a person wonder which of today’s medical techniques will seem barbaric in the future.