Barber surgeons

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Barber surgeon tending a peasant's foot (c. 1649-1650)
Source: Wikicommons
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See also Bloodletting | Édouard Beaupré | Grave robbing | Mütter Museum in Philadelphia | Medical oddities | Trephination

" ...the barber surgeon was one of the most common medical practitioners of medieval Europe - generally charged with looking after soldiers during or after a battle. In this era, surgery was not generally conducted by physicians, but by barbers. They often took up residence in castles where they also provided medical assistance to the rich and wealthy...."

Barber-surgeons have provided haircuts and shaves for men and women as well as small surgeries, teeth-extractions and embalming for many thousands of years. In fact, the skills of the barber extended far beyond hair cuts to performing surgeries, probably due to the barber's access to cutting implements. In Ancient Egypt, it was common for men and women to shave their heads completely in order to wear wigs, and other head-gear. Highly-ranking officials often shaved their heads and bodies. The wealthy had personal slaves to shave their bodies who also maintained their owners' wigs. Gradually a class of independent barbers developed to perform these services. Everyone needed a shave! As needed, barber-surgeons would perform other duties such as cleaning ears and examining teeth.

In ancient Greece and Rome, the fields of surgery and medicine were closely linked but for more than 1500 years surgery was viewed to be more of a trade than a profession. The social status of barber-surgeons was therefore lower than physicians', and were seen to be (considerably) inferior academically. The clear distinction between surgery and medicine was reinforced during the middle ages. Because most medical and surgical healing was carried out by members of the clergy, there was some conflict with them coming into contact with human blood. A papal decree in the 13th century insisted that priests refrain from doing surgeries. Consequently, surgeries passed to monasteries where they were conducted by barber-surgeons who had experience with other cutting implements.

Not surprisingly, barbers in the middle ages served as both surgeons and dentists, and were asked to learn the skills for haircutting, hairdressing, shaving, surgery, bloodletting and leeching, fire cupping, and the extraction of teeth. These skills earned them the title barber surgeons. The barber pole, featuring red and white spiralling stripes, indicated two crafts (surgery in red, barbering in white). Barbers received higher pay than surgeons until surgeons served on the British war ships during naval wars. Some duties of the barber included neck manipulation, cleansing of ears and scalp, draining of boils, fistula and lancing of cysts with wicks.

In 16th C. England, Henry VIII decreed that barbers and surgeons would merge into one "noble art of chiurgery (surgery)". The resulting guild trained prospective barber-surgeons, helping them to find employment. The barber's pole appears to be associated with bloodletting. The original pole had a brass basin at the top which represented the vessel where leeches were kept, and also held a basin for blood. The pole represented a staff which patients held onto for dear life during surgeries. The red and white stripes represented bandages: red for bandages stained with blood and white for clean bandages.

Barber-surgeons taught anatomy in England and Scotland from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Their only sources of bodies were either the gallows or the grave, and supply from the former was limited by law. The latter became the most reliable source of anatomical "material" and the profession of grave robbing was therefore established. The taking of bodies caused riots in the streets where the public directed their outrage at anatomists. The passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832 in England helped to end the grisly business of snatching bodies, but their supply for studying still remained a problem. In the 1920s, there was a change in public attitude towards dissection resulting in the increased donation of bodies. (See Grave robbers).

The roots of surgery and anatomy

The fields of surgery and anatomy began in Ancient Egypt. From the Early Dynastic Period (3100 BC) until Galen, Egypt was the centre of knowledge about surgery and anatomy. Knowledge of neuroanatomy became so important that rituals were performed by embalmers during mummification. It was also later a science to be studied by wise men at the temple of Memphis. As religious conflicts took root, study of the human body became forbidden. Myths began to replace scientific research, and exploration of the human body stalled until Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria. This period witnessed a revolution in the study of anatomy and functional anatomy. Herophilus of Chalcedon, Erasistratus of Chios, Rufus of Ephesus, and Galen were prominent physicians who studied at Alexandria and contributed to knowledge about human anatomy. After the Library of Alexandria was burned and laws were passed prohibiting human dissection based on religious and cultural factors, knowledge of human anatomy plateaued for 1500 years.


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