The lessons of the past (Day -280)

The Knick Medical History

I’ve started to learn more about the history of surgery, and how the techniques used today developed. This is absolutely fascinating for me as I believe that we should avoid repeating mistakes that have already been made in the past. In fact I believe it is essential – and this will probably keep cropping up in my posts from here forth.

For me this started rather randomly with a TV show – The Knick which is based in the early 1900’s and is based on medical history which got me wondering what else used to be. This was just after the invention of anaesthesia and the main character is styled around the famous Dr Halsted. This show made me scared both at how patients died from common diseases which are now easily treated with antibiotics to how racism was so common even among such highly educated men.

Something that I found surprising was that in the 1800’s the official language of medicine was German. There are an original set of books from 1881 by Dr Billroth who is considered the father of abdominal surgery – and in fact some of the operations he developed are still commonly used today.

However what has also come up is how the techniques were developed often using animals in the past. For example at the start of the 1900’s Dr Harvey Cushing decided to teach a human surgery course on live dogs as the ability to learn on cadavers was not suitable. Actually a lot of the techniques for brain surgery were developed on dogs, not just by Dr Cushing but also by his colleagues. At one point Dr Cushing actually made a glass window in a dog’s skull so he could observe the blood vessels in the brain whilst he was observing the differences in intracranial pressure (the development of the Cushing reflex).

Something really important though is that through this learning by human surgeons a vast amount of knowledge was collected about animals. This knowledge needs to be accessible and used. Still today many medicines and medical procedures are developed on animals. Yet there is still a divide between animals being used for development of these procedures and them being available after development for use in animals. This is why I believe One Medicine is so important and I do fully support The Humanimal Trust in making this happen.

I’ve still a few chapters left to read in Harvey Cushing: A life in surgery however already it has been an amazing story – and extremely inspiring.