Penny Dreadful: From True Crime to FictionThe Madding Crowd: 18th Century LondonBloodletting: Barber Surgeons and Early MedicineThe Play's the Thing: From Melodrama to Musical
Early Practitioners
The Humours
Surgical Procedures
Barbers and Surgeons Part Ways
Dissections and Corpse-Taking

Juicy innards in a pastry shell.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert
Surgical Procedures

Surgery in the 18th century was hazardous for everyone involved. There were no anesthetics and very little understanding of infection, so even if a patient survived the operating table, they very often died during recovery.


Pain management came in the form of a whisky bottle - most patients got drunk to prepare themselves for their operations. Surgeons' assistants often had to physically restrain the patient from leaping off the table and running away. Speed was essential in performing surgery. William Cheldson, the most expert surgeon of his generation, was documented as extracting a stone from a bladder in less than 30 seconds. Nevertheless, the writhing patient screaming, vomiting, fainting, splattering blood and moaning incoherently were the standard sights and sounds of the 18th century surgical theater. One surgeon, John Abernathy, almost never managed to operate without vomiting.

Read a 1751 account from a surgeon's journal of a typical amputation.

Additional Resources

Tour an "Operating Theatre" from the early days of anatomy demonstrations

Barbers & Surgeons Part WaysNext


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IV. The Play's the Thing  -  Recipes

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