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Ambroise Paré (1510-90)

Ambroise Paré was an innovative French surgeon who served as royal surgeon for a number of French kings, including Henri II. Having been apprenticed to a barber, Paré joined the army in 1536, and spent much of the next 30 years as a military surgeon. He improved or invented many techniques, especially in the treatment of war wounds.

Many surgeons gained experience as a result of war, and Paré was no exception. It was common practice at the time for surgeons to seal wounds by the use of cauterisation but, in his first job as a war surgeon in 1536, Paré ran out of the boiling oil which was used to seal the soldier's wounds in this way. Instead, he made a tincture of egg yolk, turpentine and oil of roses. The following morning, and to his amazement, the soldiers who had been treated with the tincture were in a much better condition than those who had been treated with boiling oil.

Paré also rejected cautery to seal wounds after amputation. Instead, he used ligatures to tie off the blood vessels. While this was less painful for the patient, the ligatures could cause infection, complications and death, so were not adopted as readily by other surgeons.

He was also interested in the application of new anatomical ideas - such as those of Andreas Vesalius - developed a number of instruments and artificial limbs, and introduced new ideas in obstetrics.

His famed work as a war surgeon, and afterward as a surgeon in Paris, together with the publication of his book Les Oeuvres in 1575, ensured that Ambroise Paré’s techniques and ideas spread across Europe. His success was also influential in beginning to raise the status of barber-surgeons.

Bibliography

W F Bynum and H Bynum, Dictionary of Medical Biography (London: Greenwood Press, 2007)

W B Hamby, Ambroise Paré, Surgeon of the Renaissance (St. Louis: W.H. Green, 1967)

Glossary:

Cauterise

Using a hot iron to seal a wound to stop bleeding.

Ligature

A thread or string for tying the blood vessels, particularly the arteries, to prevent bleeding. The word ‘ligature’ can also refer to the action or result of binding or tying, e.g. the ligature of an artery.

Obstetrics

A branch of medicine dealing with the care of women. This care occurs during pregnancy, childbirth, and the period of recovery from childbirth.