Morbidly Beautiful Illustrations Reveal The Horror Of Surgery In The 15th–19th Centuries

Aren’t you glad you were born in time for scientists and inventors to perfect the use of anesthesia?

Could you imagine having to go through any of these early surgical procedures without it?

It sounds and looks horrifying. Thankfully, in 1772 English scientist Joseph Priestley discovered the gas known as nitrous oxide. Initially, people thought this gas to be lethal, even in small doses, like some other nitrogen oxides.

However, in 1799, British chemist and inventor Humphry Davy decided to find out by experimenting on himself.

To his astonishment he found that nitrous oxide made him laugh; hence laughing gas became the long-standing nickname for anesthesia.

In a painstaking memoir from a pre-anesthesia era, a women writes a gut-wrenching account of what it felt like to be operated on without it:

When the dreadful steel was plunged into the chest – cutting through veins – arteries – flesh – nerves – I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still? So excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards that were tearing the edges of the wound.

This vast collection of gruesome surgical procedures were some of the first illustrations disseminated in instructional textbooks. The beautiful yet horrifying photos are compiled in Crucial Interventions: An Illustrated Treatise on the Principles & Practice of Nineteenth-Century Surgery, a new book by medical historian Richard Barnett.


Jean Baptiste Marc Bourgery and Nicholas Henri Jacob, ‘Iconografia d’anatomia chirurgica e di medicina operatoria,’ (1841), Florence. Ligature of an artery in the inguinal region, using sutures and a suture hook, with compression of the abdomen to reduce aortic blood flow. (all images courtesy Wellcome Library, London/Wellcome Images)

Pancoast, 1846. Surgery to correct strabismus, involving the division of the internal rectus of the right eye
Bourgery and Jacob, ‘Traité complet de l’anatomie de l’homme’ (1840). Incision and two procedures for caesarean section
An early European anatomical dissection, from Johannes de Ketham’s ‘Fasciculus Medicinae’ (ca. 1493). A learned physician reads from a treatise while a surgeon carries out the dissection


Pancoast, 1846. Surgery for cancer of the tongue
This scene from an Arzneibuch (a compendium of surgical techniques and medical recipes), compiled around 1675 for a Franciscan monastery in Germany or Austria, shows surgery for lacrimal fistula being performed on a nun
Thomas Johnson, ‘The works of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey translated out of Latine and compared with the French’ (1634). The frontispiece to Thomas Johnson’s English translation of Ambroise Paré’s works
Hand-colored illustrations of a prosthetic nose from Ambroise Paré’s ‘La Methode Curative des Playes, et Fractures de la Teste Humaine’ (1561)
Bourgery and Jacob, ‘Traité complet de l’anatomie de l’homme, vol. 3’ (1844). Vertical cross section of the human brain


Bourgery and Jacob, ‘Iconografia d’anatomia, vol. 1’ (1841). Resection of the lower jaw


Bernard and Huette, 1848. Musculature and blood supply of the wrist and hand
Pancoast, 1846. Sites for ligature of arteries in the lower arm and resection of the arm at the elbow joint
Pancoast, 1846. Compression of arteries in the arm and leg to reduce blood loss during surgery
Bernard and Huette, 1848. Anatomy of the armpit, and the ligature of the auxiliary armpit
Maclise, 1856. Dissection of a seated man, showing the aorta and the major arteries of the thorax and abdomen
Maclise, 1856. Dissection of a seated man, showing the aorta and the major arteries of the thorax and abdomen
Bernard and Huette, 1848. Dissection of the thorax, showing the relative position of the lungs, heart and primary blood vessels


Bourgery and Jacob, ‘Iconografia d’anatomia, vol. 1’ (1841). Surgical saws, knives, and shears for operations on bone
Bourgery and Jacob, ‘Iconografia d’anatomia, vol. 1’ (1841). Amputation of various toes, and amputation of the toes at the metatarsals

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