If you think undergoing surgery is scary, imagine being a soldier who had to be operated on, on the battlefield during the 16th century. There was no ample understanding and technology yet on how human bodies work and respond to different treatments. Thankfully, a curious and talented barber-surgeon named Ambroise Paré and his scientific approach greatly improved military medicine.

Barber Surgeon

It was with his scientific approach and inquisitive nature that Ambroise Paré managed to improve the condition of battlefield treatment for those wounded soldiers who were in dire need of help at that time when the general approach of people to everything was based on traditions and folklore.

Ambroise Paré was born in 1510 Bourg-Hersent, northwest France. He grew up watching his older brother at work as a barber-surgeon, who seemed to have greatly influenced him. Thus, it was no surprise that Ambroise would later take an apprenticeship under his brother before coming to Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, France’s oldest hospital, for formal training.

As the name suggests, a barber-surgeon was the rather odd combination of two professions: trimming beards and cutting hair, and performing surgical procedures and bloodletting. Doctors did not perform surgery at that time, and it was the barber-surgeons responsibility to do that. Often, they would learn the skills through an apprenticeship with a more experienced colleague, mostly with no formal learning whatsoever. Basically, if one needed tooth extraction, pain reliever medicine, a limb amputation, and a new hairstyle, he could visit a barber-surgeon and get all those from one person.

Military Medicine

For many years, Paré worked on the battlefield, treating wounded soldiers with what was known as effective treatments at that time. While the 1500s were a time of superstition and not enlightened reason, he was not someone who would just allow the beliefs known at that time to be accepted with no question and investigation. He began his experiments with a scientific approach by treating one group of patients with their traditional way of boiling elder oil and cauterization. On the other hand, another group was treated with a medicine recipe made of egg yolk, rose oil, and turpentine, which was left overnight. He found out that the soldiers that he treated with boiling elder oil were not only in agony while receiving the treatment, but their wounds did not heal quite well. In contrast, those who received his ointment had recovered faster because of the presumed antiseptic properties of turpentine.

Cauterization in amputation was widely used at that time to seal the wound and prevent blood loss. Paré wanted to reduce that. Often, sealing the wounds with a red-hot iron would not stop the bleeding and sometimes caused the patients to die of shock. Instead, he encouraged the use of the ligature technique to prevent hemorrhaging during amputation, something that he detailed in his 1564 book titled Treatise on Surgery.

Title page of Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré, Paris, 1628. (Federica Viazzi (AO AL)CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Moreover, Ambroise Paré was the first one to understand the phantom limb phenomena when patients still seemed to feel pain in the already amputated limb. He believed that the sensation did not come from the remnants of the limb but rather something that occurred in the patient’s brain. In connection, it led him to investigate the design of limb prostheses. Aside from that, he invented artificial eyes made of enameled gold, silver, glass, and porcelain— things that were considered rather odd at that time, but as we now know, were things that would continuously improve as time and technological advances went by. Porcelain and glass are still used today for artificial eyes.

Serving the French Court

In 1552, Paré would also serve the Valois Dynasty under Henry II. He was called to treat a severe blow to the head that the king received during a jousting tournament in 1559. Although he was unable to cure the king, he remained and continued to serve Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX, and finally, Henry III.