Ambroise Pare and Modern Surgery

For most of the history of Western medicine, doctors rarely performed surgeries themselves, especially among the professors. This is probably surprising to many. However, there was a belief that manual labor (work with your hands) was beneath an educated thinker. A thinker’s job was to think about how to solve a problem.

The people who did the majority of surgeries were the barbers. Today barbers do not do surgeries. However, barbers were especially popular for minor surgeries, and the red and white you see in front of a barbershop represents the red of blood and the white f bandages.

One barber who had a tremendous influence on medicine and surgery was Ambroise Pare (1510-90). Pare was from France and was raised in a poor family. He received a basic education and became a barber’s assistant with the goal of becoming a doctor.

Medical School & Disappointment

At the age of 19, Pare went to Paris to study medicine. Whoever, his dream was crushed when he was unable to pass the entrance exam. The exam was in Greek and Latin, and these were languages Pare did not learn as a child as his poor background did not allow for this.

Disappointed, Pare became a barber-surgeon at a hospital. The conditions were terrible, with low lighting and ventilation. Professors would bring their students there to see applied medicine, with most students eager to leave with a dream of treating the rich when they graduated. However, Pare gained a tremendous amount of practical experience and was beginning to learn when teachers were right and wrong about the body.

During War

During one of the many wars that France was involved in, Pare became a surgeon. The practice of the time was to pour boiling oil on gunshot wounds. This could burn a wounded man alive like fried chicken. However, it was considered the best treatment. Pare did this until he ran out of oil. With the oil gone, he made his own concoction of egg yolk, oil of roses, and turpentine. This mixture was much more successful than the burning oil solution that was standard practice.

Another innovation with Pare was amputations. Surgeons had no problem removing limbs from people without thought to the pain caused. After butchering the patient, a hot iron was applied to stop the bleeding. Often this alone would kill a person who had survived losing an arm or leg. Pare decided to use silk thread to close the wound, which would spare the patient the added pain of the hot iron. The soldiers loved Pare for his approach to medicine, while the real doctors resented his work.

Pare combined all of his practical knowledge into a book. However, he struggled to get it published because real doctors despised him because of his fame. Even a law stated that no book on medicine could be published until doctors from the University of Paris approved. It took four years, but when the book was published, it was highly popular.


Par was a self-made man. He lacked the formal education of a doctor but made up for it through practical experience helping people who were hurt. In the end, the practical experience was more valuable as Pare was able to see the discrepancies between theory and practice.

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