A Brief History of Surgery





Frederick H. Millham  (Harvard Medical School)
Freshman Seminar 24G       4 credits (fall term)     Enrollment:  Limited to 15

The history of surgery begins with the Hippocratic physicians whose principles were based, at least partly, on observation and measurement.  However, surgical thinking for first three quarters of the “modern era” was dominated by Galen of Pergamum who, “fooled by his monkeys,” established a school thought as false as it was tightly held.  The exposure of Galen’s errors by Vesalius in 1543 and Harvey in 1628 began a Medical Enlightenment.  It would take until the 19th century for the next era of discovery to begin.  During this time, the pace and significance of medical discovery increase, yet adoption of good ideas, like antisepsis, seems to take much too long, while bad ideas find adherents in spite of poor or no supporting evidence.  Throughout this period, the ghost of Galen continues to haunt hospitals and battlefields.  It will not be until the 1930’s that Galenism is banished from the wards.  Our study will track this history and conclude with a consideration of the management of combat casualties from the time of the first “modern” surgeon, Ambrose Pare, to that of contemporary forward surgical teams in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The seminar will consist of weekly discussion, informed by assigned reading and independent inquiry.  We will visit the site of the first use of ether anesthesia, and duplicate William Harvey’s experiments in the anatomy lab.  From time to time we will be joined by other doctors with expertise in specific areas such as infectious disease, combat surgery and anatomy.

See also: Fall 2022