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Barber-surgeons

Barber-surgeons were medical practitioners in medieval Europe who, unlike many doctors of the time, performed surgery, often on the war wounded. Barber-surgeons would normally learn their trade as an apprentice to a more experienced colleague. Many would have no formal learning, and were often illiterate.

The red and white pole which is still used to identify a barber’s shop was originally intended to reflect the blood and napkins used to clean up during bloodletting. This treatment was one of the main tasks of the barber-surgeon, as well as extracting teeth, performing enemas, selling medicines, performing surgery and, of course, cutting hair.

In England barbers and surgeons originally had separate guilds, but these were merged by Henry VIII in 1540 as the United Barber-Surgeons Company. However, the two professions were beginning to separate. Surgery was establishing itself as a profession, helped by men such as the French surgeon Ambroise Paré, whose work raised the professional status of surgery. Increasingly, barbers were forbidden to carry out any surgical procedures except for teeth-pulling and bloodletting. In 1745 the two professions were separated by King George II, who established the London College of Surgeons. By this time surgeons were university educated.

Bibliography

M Pelling, 'Barbers and barber-surgeons: an occupational group in an English provincial town, 1550-1640', Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 28 (1981), pp 14-16

M Pelling, The Common Lot: Sickness, Medical Occupations, and the Urban Poor in Early Modern England (London: Longmans, 1998)

Glossary:

Apprenticeship

An agreement where a person learns a trade from a skilled worker over a fixed period of time.

Enema

A liquid injected into the anus. Enemas can be carried out for medical reasons, as a treatment for constipation, or as a way to give drugs.