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Surgery used to be painful, dangerous and often unsuccessful. What did it take to make it the safe, reliable treatment that we take for granted?

Surgical procedures are among the oldest medical practices. But for a long time, they were also the last resort for most patients. Before surgery could become a safe and reliable treatment, three problems had to be overcome:

  • How to stop blood loss so the patient didn't bleed to death or go into shock
  • How to deal with the excruciating pain of surgery and
  • How to prevent life-threatening infections.

By the 20th century, surgeons had found solutions to all of these, and surgery came into its own as an essential branch of medicine. 

Four stories about surgery

The problem of blood loss

A japanese woman having breast surgery, as copious amounts of blood flow from the incision


Military surgeons were the first to address the problem of severe blood loss from wounds. But uncontrolled bleeding was a problem for every surgeon who had to cut into a blood vessel.

Read more about the problem of blood loss

The art of anaesthesia

Photograph of an original photograph of Clover demonstrating how chloroform was administered with his apparatus, 1862.


Before general anaesthetics, surgeons had to operate on conscious patients who might be writhing in agony, and likely to go into shock at any time. Anaesthesia gave patients pain-free surgery, and surgeons the time to attempt more complex procedures. 

Read more about the art of anaesthesia

Joseph Lister's Antisepsis System

A 19th century operation under antiseptic condition using a carbolic spray


If injury or surgery didn't kill you, then post-surgical infection might. That is until Joseph Lister found a way to bring infection under control using the science of germ theory and strict surgical routines.

Read more about Joseph Lister's Antisepsis System

Surgeons and surgical spaces

19th century surgeons standing in a row holding the tools of their trade


The modern surgeon is a highly trained professional working in a state-of-the-art operating theatre. But the medieval surgeon dressed wounds on the battlefield and the barber-surgeon extracted teeth and set bones in a shop, in between haircuts. 

Find out more about surgeons and surgical spaces