"Half-Gods Good Surgeons May Be Called": Surgery's Quest For Occupational Credit in England, 1590-1715

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Sandassie, Samantha
England , History of Surgery , 17th Century , History of Medicine
This study contributes to the scholarship on early modern medicine and the professions by examining English surgical practitioners, 1590-1715. It explores the growth of surgery through the intersection of print culture and institutional history and delineates the manner in which surgical practitioners worked with, and within, their changing socio-cultural context to gain social and occupational credit. Bringing together published treatises and manuscript sources such as practitioner casebooks, institutional records of the Company of Barbers and Surgeons and the Royal College of Physicians, it argues that surgical practitioners sought actively to create new social and occupational identities based on that of physicians. The project reveals that surgical practitioners underwent a theoretical and experiential education that reflected an understanding of “surgery” beyond incision, extirpation, and suturing. Practitioners took to print to present themselves as learned; they took advantage of the new emphasis on empirical ways of knowing and stressed that their knowledge acquisition – unlike that of physicians – was both theoretical and practical. Print however, was also used to reify a largely negative view of surgeons and surgery. Popular health treatises presented surgery as painful, invasive, and to be avoided at all costs while, in fiction, surgeons were ill-educated and merely aping the physician’s vocabulary and gentlemanly conduct. The latter observation echoes mockingly surgeons’ self-creation in both print and institution. As the seventeenth century progressed, the Company of Barbers and Surgeons acted increasingly to shape the occupational identity of surgeons as separate from barbers and more closely related to physicians. The institution battled to be recognized as an organized body whose members were competent medical practitioners. Individual practitioners sought to showcase their adherence to the new science as a method of knowledge creation and testing, seizing upon the Royal Society to further their aims. Through both this institutional mechanism and informal patronage relationships, surgeons could ingratiate themselves with those who could provide both positions and patients. Combined, these findings hold implications for the history of surgery and the occupation’s advancement – especially in terms of “horizontal honour” – during a period that lacked significant innovation in terms of technique or even improved quality of care.
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