Final Countdown

Just a quick one today. I found the following in Raymond Lamont-Brown’s  Royal Poxes and Potions: The Lives of Court Physicians, Surgeons and Apothecaries (2001), p. 135.

The use of chloroform was made extremely popular in Britain in 1853 when it was used on Queen Victoria to relieve the pain of childbirth. She was delivered safely of Prince Leopold, and used chloroform again in 1857 when she delivered Princess Beatrice.

Chloroform had been gaining traction as a standard medical anesthetic before this, of course, but much as with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and inoculation, it sometimes takes a very high-profile person vouching for a new and possibly risky procedure for it to really take off with the public.

Before chloroform, however, surgeries and amputations were horrific events. Reading accounts of author Fanny Burney’s mastectomy in 1811, a modern reader is left wondering how someone could survive such a procedure while awake. The fact is, many people didn’t. People can die from shock remarkably quickly, so surgeons in the early nineteenth century and before were experts in performing operations with incredible speed (made all the more incredible when you think about the tools they had to work with).

Surgeons were required to amputate a leg in 120 called-out seconds, or . . . extract a gallstone in 54 seconds. Opium and whisky were the most employed pain-deadeners, while others experimented with mesmerism” (135). The fear, of course, of plying a patient with alcohol was that they would bleed out before the operation–even ones as rapidly completed as these–was over.

Does anyone else know how long other operations were supposed to take? I find it fascinating that they could pin-point it to such a specific time. Not 60 seconds, not 55 seconds, but precisely 54. Let me know and I will update!

ETA: Commentor Reynardo on my livejournal sister site writes:

“In fact, the fastest leg amputation was by Robert Liston, to quote Richard Gordon who wrote a wonderful book about Medical Disasters:

“Amputated the leg in under 2½ minutes (the patient died afterwards in the ward from hospital gangrene; they usually did in those pre-Listerian days). He amputated in addition the fingers of his young assistant (who died afterwards in the ward from hospital gangrene). He also slashed through the coat tails of a distinguished surgical spectator, who was so terrified that the knife had pierced his vitals he dropped dead from fright.

“That was the only operation in history with a 300 percent mortality.”

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1 Response to Final Countdown

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol: #05 | Whewell's Ghost

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