Surgeons Museum Highlights Need for Pain Control

Surgeons Hall Museum Dr. Seth
Anatomy teaching was the original intent of the Surgeons Hall Museums

Nothing could be more eye-opening to a pain patient or his doctor than a visit to the three Surgeons Museums run by the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.  The Museums, which include the Wohl Pathology Museum of preserved specimens, the Hall of Techniques and Technologies of Dentistry, and the History of Surgery Museum, allow the visitor to contemplate how much medicine has progressed since 1832, when the Royal College first opened its collections to the public. From an anaesthesiologist and pain doctor’s perspective, if you had lived even as recently as 150 years ago, you would have endured far more pain than patients to today.

Before the Surgeons Museums opened to the public, the collections were only used as teaching tools for medical students, which is probably why there’s such a large collection of preserved pathology specimens. The only real medical specialty was surgery, so anatomy was very important. In those days there was a brisk trade in body-stealing, so surgeons could acquire cadavers for the teaching of anatomy. Back then there was no way to find out what was inside a body other than to cut it open and look.

The actual collecting of specimens and tools of the trade began in 1505, when the Royal College of Surgeons and Barbers received its charter and announced that it was making a collection of ‘natural and artificial curiosities and advertised for these in the first edition of a local paper, the Edinburgh Gazette

Just the name, College of Surgeons and Barbers, said it all. If you were a pain patient in the early years of surgery, you had very few options, one of the best of which was surgery — without anaesthesia!

Some of the tools and instruments used in early surgeries included hacksaws and forceps, and they are enough to frighten the most intrepid patient. No patient would undergo these surgeries if they thought there were another way. 

There is perhaps nothing as simultaneously useful and dreaded as pain. In many ways, pain is the ultimate teacher. It teaches us to avoid fire, poison, sharp objects and many other things that could cause us harm. It alerts the body to injury and disease. But it is also unpleasant and, depending on intensity and duration, can have a drastic impact on quality of life. Another thing about pain: We have always had to deal with it, and we always will.

Fifteen years ago, UCLA History Professor Marcia Meldrum wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association that pain is the oldest medical problem and the universal affliction of mankind, yet it has been little understood in physiology until very recently.

Since the days of the Bible, pain was seen either as a test of faith, as in the Book of Job, or a way to redemption through sacrifice as in the crucifixion.

That doesn’t help a medical patient to live with her pain, and by the time of the Enlightenment European physicians were already prescribing opium, or a mixture of opium and sherry called laudanum, specifically to relieve the pain of tooth extractions and limb amputations.

The invention of anaesthesia totally changed the practice of medicine, making hitherto intolerable surgeries possible, and allowing surgeons to take the time to be accurate when making their incisions or saw cuts.

Fast forward to today, when we have a variety of tools and techniques to manage pain that would be seen by these historical patients as miraculous. Indeed, most of them are nonsurgical, or non-invasive. And as long as they are used correctly and respectfully  by trained professionals, these tools have revolutionized the lives of people with pain. 

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