Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Physicians, Surgeons, and Apothecaries

In the eighteenth century, there were three types of professions that were considered to be medical professions: physician, surgeon, and apothecary. Only physicians needed any sort of training in higher education, as surgeons and apothecaries were often simply apprenticed into their position.

All of this made me wonder just how effective medicine of this century was. I think everyone has their preconceptions about what it would have been at this time, perhaps with surgeons haphazardly taking saws to patients and apothecaries giving mystery drugs to customers, but maybe medicine was a tad more advanced than that even three hundred or so years ago. I would think that, perhaps, people knew enough about human anatomy to at least have effective surgeries, even if they were conducted without anesthesia, and I think that the majority of "surgeries" really involved sawing a person's mangled limb off, but that may be another misconception. I have less confidence in the apothecaries' drugs, as chemistry wasn't really a flourishing field yet during the eighteenth century, but perhaps, just by experimentation, these apothecaries did manage to find some effective medicine. In any case, it adds to my intrigue as to why physicians, of all of them, were the only ones that needed formal training when the other two seem to be more precarious and advanced.

Again, most of this was merely speculative, and typing this has actually inspired me to look more into this, so I can put aside my misconceptions and learn about the quality of eighteenth-century medicine as it actually was.

-Christopher Hoef


  1. I agree with you on your assertion that perhaps medicine and surgery weren't as primitive in the eighteenth century as many people believe. I think perhaps the primitive aspect of these old medical practices does not lie with the procedures themselves, but instead relates to the ethical practices involved in these procedures. The decreased possibility of accidents during surgery nowadays compared to that which was present in the eighteenth century is yet another of the many examples of how ethical scientific advancements have helped improve the quality of life experienced by society.

  2. Christopher,
    It is funny that you mention this, as I just read something interesting about medieval Europe and surgeons. Here's something you can look into as you said you want to read more into surgeons and qualifications in history.

    The article I read is from the Science Museum website of the UK. It covers a timeline of surgery over past history that you could look into. I read specifically about barber surgeons of medieval Europe who performed surgeries mostly on those wounded from war. These surgeons did not have the education that many of us go to school for today; many could not read and learned from watching and observing. It is astonishing to look at how qualifications to become a certified surgeon have changed since medieval times or since the eighteenth century as that is what you find intriguing. Formal training now, is definitely not what it was or lack thereof centuries ago.

    Here is the article