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He never mastered Latin, but concern for the wounded men in his care spurred him to innovation.
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Ambroise Paré: Father of modern surgery

He never mastered Latin, but concern for the wounded men in his care spurred him to innovation.

Like a surgeon, a barber must have steady hands, a light touch with sharp instruments, and the trust of his clients. The similarities are less surprising with the realization that, prior to the 18th century, these two professions were one and the same.

French barber-surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590) found it impossible to master Latin, which ruled out the more prestigious and lucrative career of physician. While these practitioners seldom deigned to soil themselves with blood and other bodily fluids, barber-surgeons were expected to handle everything from beard trimming and boil lancing to amputations and delivering babies.

After an apprenticeship in a Paris hospital, Paré joined the military, where he practiced his craft with diligence and humility. Of one officer he treated, Paré wrote, “I bandaged him and God healed him.”

It was perhaps this humility that allowed Paré to find novel solutions that his more learned peers overlooked. The common treatment for bullet wounds at the time was to cauterize them with boiling oil, a procedure that caused inflammation and fever. When Paré ran out of medical supplies, including oil, during the Siege of Turin, he was forced to improvise with a mixture of egg yolk, rose oil, and turpentine. He was happily surprised to see that the men treated in this way recovered much more easily. “See how I learned to treat gunshot wounds,” Paré wrote, “not by books.”

Extensive battlefield experience also led Paré to design the surgical clamp — to this day one of the greatest technological advancements in medical history. In his relentless pursuit of innovation, Paré also pioneered post-surgical care and pain relief, never losing sight of the dignity of the individual men and women he was committed to serve. In this respect, at least, the father of surgery remains far more advanced than many of our own modern medical professionals.

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Matt Himes

Matt Himes

Managing Editor, Align

Matt Himes is the managing editor for Align.
@matthimes →