19 Unbelievable and Gruesome Facts about 19th Century Surgery
19 Unbelievable and Gruesome Facts about 19th Century Surgery

19 Unbelievable and Gruesome Facts about 19th Century Surgery

D.G. Hewitt - March 11, 2019

19 Unbelievable and Gruesome Facts about 19th Century Surgery
Scientists from the Royal College of Surgeons packing over 3,000 skulls. Credit: RareHistoricalPhotos.com

2. The indignity didn’t end if you died on the operating table – your body may have been used for dissection by inept medical students.

The gruesomeness of Victorian-era surgery didn’t even end with the death of a patient. As if the indignity of being cut open, screaming in agony due to a lack of proper anesthetic and then bleeding to death on an operating table in front of a crowd of students and passers-by jostling for a better view of your demise wasn’t bad enough, your dead body would then be cut open some more. In England, the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832 made digging up corpses a criminal offence. So medical surgeons and anatomy professors had to look elsewhere for specimens – and those poor individuals who never made it out of surgery alive offered the perfect solution.

From the late-1870s onward, advances in embalming meant that bodies could be stored for several months before being used for anatomy classes. These cadavers would also be used for practicing surgical procedures – again, often in front of baying crowds. Though grim, significant advances were made during the 19th century, especially when it came to understanding anatomy. In 1858, the first edition of Henry Gray’s book Gray’s Anatomy was published. The work, which is still referred to today, was based on the dissection of dozens of unclaimed bodies from London’s mortuaries and workhouse morgues.

19 Unbelievable and Gruesome Facts about 19th Century Surgery
By the early-1900s, huge advances had been made in surgery, saving many lives. Pinterest.

1. It may still have been brutal and risky, but surgery in 1900 was a long way from the grim realities of surgery in 1800

In the field of surgery, as with medicine in general, a lot of progress was made over the course of the 19th century. Indeed, you’d be far happier going under the knife in 1900 than you would in 1800. Above all, thanks to the pioneering work of Joseph Lister in particular, doctors became increasingly aware of the risks posed by infections. Significant progress was made in the area of antiseptic surgery, with surgeons coming round to the idea of sterilizing their tools and scrubbing their hands before performing any operation. What’s more, advances in anesthesia allowed surgeons to perform longer and more complex operations.

By the 1890s, surgeons were wearing clean white robes rather than simply covering their everyday clothes with blood-stained aprons. And surgical instruments had become better, too. Wooden-handled saws had been replaced with saws made out of a single piece of steel, significantly reducing the risk of germs. In operating theatres, watching audiences were out and smooth, easily-cleaned surfaces were in. So, when the Spanish-American War of 1898 broke out, American hospital ships were clean, well-equipped and even fitted with X-ray machines – advances that undoubtedly saved the lives of countless soldiers.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Gruesome, Bloody World of Victorian Surgery.” The Atlantic, October 2017.

“Joseph Lister and the grim reality of Victorian surgery.” Science Focus.

“How to amputate limbs without fainting: the trials of a Victorian surgeon.” The Telegraph, December 2015.

“How Ether Transformed Surgery From a Race Against the Clock.” Scientific American, October 2017.

“Brought to life. Exploring the History of Medicine: Anaesthesia.” The Science Museum, London.

“The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine.” The Guardian, October 2017.

“The Victorian Revolution in Surgery.” Science, April 2004.

“Screams, torture and so much blood: The gruesome world of 19th century surgery.” Washington Post, October 2017.

“The gruesome 19th century surgery that inspired a BBC comedy.” Wired.co.uk, March 2017.

“Surgery in 19th century revealed in gruesome historical documents.” The Independent, January 2016.