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Ambroise Paré and the gentle art of surgery

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Ambroise ParéAmbroise Paré was born about 500 years ago. I say “about” because I have not been able to find his exact date of birth. All of my reference sources give his dates as “circa 1510–20 December 1590” and so I have arbitrarily chosen this weekend on which to remember him.

Ambroise Paré grew up in the French provincial town of Laval, where he served an apprenticeship to the town barber. Physicians in this period often left what they called the cutting work to barber-surgeons and so the ambitious young Paré set off to train as a master barber-surgeon at the Hôtel Dieu hospital in Paris.

In 1536 Paré became a regimental surgeon in the French army, where wounds were routinely treated by cauterisation with boiling oil. During one battle Paré ran out of oil but recalled an old country remedy. He applied a concoction of egg yolk, oil of roses and turpentine to the wounds instead of oil and found that this was not only more comfortable for his patients but also more effective than cauterisation.

Paré also used ligatures instead of cauterisation during amputations and designed the “crow’s beak” (bec de corbin), an early form of haemostat.

He also pioneered the use of several other techniques, including implanting teeth and fitting artificial limbs and artificial eyes. He was also one of the first surgeons to give up the routine castration of patients who needed surgery to repair a hernia. Indeed, he was reputed to resort to surgery only when necessary.

In 1545 Paré wrote an account of his work on the battlefield but this was ignored by his peers because he wrote it in simple French rather than Latin. His work was eventually recognised when it was translated for him. Later Paré wrote a textbook on midwifery, the English title of which was ‘Child birth; or, The happy deliverie of women’.

Ambroise Paré went on to become surgeon to the king in 1552 and served four French monarchs in that capacity until his death in 1590.

It has been said that this modest man turned butchery on the battlefield into humane surgery. He was renowned for the caring and democratic way that he treated casualties of all ranks and when praised would comment, “Je le pansay, Dieu le guarit” — “I dressed him, God healed him”. Paré’s name should not be forgotten.

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