Empire of the Scalpel: The History of Surgery

Scribner. Mar. 2022. 432p. ISBN 9781501163746. $29. MED
Surgeon and medical historian Rutkow (Surgery: An Illustrated History) writes a chronological history of surgery (primarily in Western societies) that begins with “Stone Age surgeries,” evidenced by 10,000-year-old human skulls bearing manmade holes, which have been unearthed around the world. Rutkow’s history links surgical advances to concurrent social and scientific developments: in medieval Europe, “barber surgeons” who dared to attempt invasive procedures were looked down on by physicians—who were doing their own primitive, often-futile procedures, unsupported by science. Only with the gradual emergence of anesthesia, antisepsis, hospitals, antibiotics, and professional accountability did surgeons begin their rise to respectability, Post writes. Advances came at a cost, and grisly battlefields became field labs. Rutkow’s book is interspersed with depictions of significant, largely Western figures in the history of surgery and experiences from his 40 years as a surgeon. He touches on Eastern medicine but says that his focus is Western surgical developments, as they came to dominate globally; he also discusses the women and people of color who are less represented in the contemporary surgical field.
VERDICT This is a well-documented and jargon-free work, aimed at helping laypeople better understand surgery and its practitioners.
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