The first volume of the New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery, and the Collateral Branches of Science, published in 1812, gives a sense of the constraints faced by surgeons, and the mettle required of patients, in the era before anesthesia and antisepsis. In the April issue for that year, John Collins Warren, surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital and son of one of the founders of Harvard Medical School, published a case report describing a new approach to the treatment of cataracts.1 Until that time, the prevalent method of cataract treatment was “couching,” a procedure that involved inserting a curved needle into the orbit and using it to push the clouded lens back and out of the line of sight.2 Warren's patient had undergone six such attempts without lasting success and was now blind. Warren undertook a more radical and invasive procedure — actual removal of the left cataract. He described the operation, performed before the students of Harvard Medical School, as follows:
The eye-lids were separated by the thumb and finger of the left hand, and then, a broad cornea knife was pushed through the cornea at the outer angle of the eye, till its point approached the opposite side of the cornea. The knife was then withdrawn, and the aqueous humour being discharged, was immediately followed by a protrusion of the iris.
Into the collapsed orbit of this unanesthetized man, Warren inserted forceps he had made especially for the event. However, he encountered difficulties that necessitated improvisation:
The opaque body eluding the grasp of the forceps, a fine hook was passed through the pupil, and fixed in the thickened capsule, which was immediately drawn out entire. This substance was quite firm, about half a line in thickness, a line in diameter, and had a pearly whiteness.
A bandage was applied, instructions on cleansing the eye were given, and the gentleman was sent home. Two months later, Warren noted, inflammation required “two or three bleedings,” but “the patient is now well, and sees to distinguish every object with the left eye.”
The implicit encouragement in Warren's article, and in others like it, was to be daring, even pitiless, in attacking problems of an anatomical nature. As the 18th-century surgeon William Hunter had told his students, “Anatomy is the Basis of Surgery, it informs the Head, guides the hand, and familiarizes the heart to a kind of necessary inhumanity.”3 That first volume of the Journal provided descriptions of a remarkable range of surgical techniques, including those for removing kidney, bladder, and urethral stones; dilating the male urethra when strictured by the passage of stones; tying off aneurysms of the iliac artery and infrarenal aorta; treating burns; and using leeches for bloodletting. There were articles on the problem of “the ulcerated uterus” and on the management of gunshot and cannonball wounds, not to mention a spirited debate on whether the wind of a passing cannonball alone was sufficient to cause serious soft-tissue injury.
Surgery, nonetheless, remained a limited profession.