Medical Science Then and Now

Sometimes I feel that we can be grateful, in addition to the opportunities that we have now, for not going through the kinds of pains people in the past used to suffer. The modern society has gotten rid of so many usual pains of the past that it has become harder for us to even imagine that this was the norm just some time ago and can never ever put ourselves in the positions of those who went through that time. I was reminded of this fact when I was reading Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. An excerpt follows.


Even if killing death seems a distant goal, we have already achieved things that were inconceivable a few centuries ago. In 1199, King Richard the Lionheart was struck by an arrow in his left shoulder. Today we’d say he incurred a minor injury. But in 1199, in the absence of antibiotics and effective sterilization methods, this minor flesh wound turned infectious and gangrene set in. The only way to stop the spread of gangrene in twelfth-century Europe was to cut off the infected limb, impossible when the infection was in a shoulder. The gangrene spread through the Lionheart’s body and no one could help the king. He died in great agony two weeks later.

And the book continues.


As recently as the nineteenth century, the best doctors still did not know how to prevent infection and stop the putrefaction of tissues. In field hospitals, doctors routinely cut off the hands and legs of soldiers who received even minor limb injuries, fearing gangrene. These amputations, as well as other medical procedures (such as tooth extraction), were done without any anaesthetics. The first anaesthetics — ether, chloroform and morphine — entered regular usage in Western medicine only in the middle of the nineteenth century. Before the advent of chloroform, four soldiers had to hold down a wounded comrade while the doctor sawed off the injured limb. …. In those days, carpenters and butchers who enlisted to the army were often sent to serve in the medical corps, because surgery required little more than knowing your way with knives and saws.

Compare that to what we have now and it dwarfs the largest fears and worries I ever had in my life.

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