cover image Empire of the Scalpel: The History of Surgery

Empire of the Scalpel: The History of Surgery

Ira Rutkow. Scribner, $29 (432p) ISBN 978-1-501-16374-6

“The history of surgery is a series of awe-inspiring, discrete triumphs,” according to this smart survey from historian and surgeon Rutkow (Seeking the Cure). He begins in the Stone Age, when individuals successfully cut open skulls for unknown reasons, then brings the story forward by elucidating the four most important factors necessary for successful surgery—understanding human anatomy; controlling bleeding; minimizing the risk of infection; and reducing pain. “If a pantheon existed to honor the surgical greats,” Rutkow writes, those who made breakthroughs on those four issues would sit “in the front row.” This includes Andreas Vesalius, who in the 16th century studied human anatomy despite the threat of being burned at the stake, and Joseph Lister, who pioneered surgical antisepsis practices in the 19th century. Rutkow does a good job of discussing the cultural issues surrounding surgery: war, for example, “has always posed moral dilemmas for surgeons,” given how much they learned treating wounds on the battlefield. He’s at his best when delving into the stories behind specific breakthroughs—as with his colorful description of the first surgery that used anesthesia, in 1846 Massachusetts. The result is a unique take on the history of medicine. (Mar.)