Saturday, 13 October 2012

Is there a doctor in the house?

Some of the instruments a
Roman doctor might carry

A hoard of surgical instruments from Pompeii

Many of the standard surgical procedures we take for granted have only been pioneered in the last one hundred years. The lack of anaesthetic was a stumbling block, but an even bigger issue was the risk of infection. The use of the antiseptics and heat sterilising surgical equipment dates only to the 19th-Century - the autoclave wasn't invented until 1879. However one of the curiosities of history is that Roman surgical equipment bears many striking similarities to 19th and 20th-century surgical tools - which begs the question - if their tools were as sophisticated as the modern era, then how sophisticated was their surgery? Well, we know the Roman era surgeons understood infection and how to avoid it. Two thousand year old terracotta 'autoclaves' have been found in Roman military hospitals where surgical equipment was heat treated after use. We also know Roman surgeons were capably of sewing up some pretty horrific wounds gladiators and soldiers often found themselves with, including disembowelment and deep muscle injuries. But could they do even trickier stuff? Well, tomorrow we'll take a look.

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