There is no question about it: Regency surgery was awful for patients. An observer in 1828 described an amputation in this manner:

“But, oh, how my feeling recoiled at the sight! To behold the keen shining knife drawn around the leg severing the integuments, while the unhappy subject of the operation uttered the most heart rending screams in his agony and torment … to see the saw working its way through the bone, produced an impression I can never forget.” (1)

Surgery During the Regency Era

To prepare for surgery, patients drank a cordial or a glass of wine to help steady their nerves. Not surprisingly, patients felt exhausted from fear and worry long before they climbed onto the operating table.

When the surgeon was ready, the patient was often tied down with straps or held down to prevent him from thrashing about. The image at the top of this blog shows a man about to undergo an amputation (2). Five surgeons participate in the drama. This scene, drawn in 1793 by the popular caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson, captures the chaos of the operating theatre. True to Rowlandson’s fondness for comedy, the “List of Examined and Approved Surgeons” shown on the right-hand side includes Sir Dreary Dropsical, Paul Purge, David Puke, Dr. Peter Putrid, and Frederick Fistula, among other imaginary surgeons.

The image below also shows a leg amputation. At the top several men–surgeons, most likely–steady the patient. At the bottom the amputation result is shown. The device on the man’s thigh is a tourniquet designed to be tightened to reduce blood flowing through the femoral artery during the amputation.

Shows an amputation of a leg below the knee

Regency surgery was awful. This image shows a man being restrained before he undergoes an amputation of the lower leg and foot. (Source: Wellcome Collection, public domain)

Fanny Burney’s Breast Surgery

Fanny Burney’s surgery in 1811 was typical. She waited three weeks to learn the date of her mastectomy to remove a breast tumor. When the dreaded day arrived, she received a note from the surgeon telling her that he and his colleagues would arrive that morning promptly at 10 o’clock. She made certain that her husband was not at home. She had perhaps an hour or two in which to gather her courage before the surgeons were expected to arrive. As it turned out, the surgeons didn’t arrive until mid-afternoon. The surgery was carried out in a salon on the first floor of her home. When the surgery began, she released one long, unending scream as she felt the scalpel slice through tender tissue and scrape bone. She fainted twice. Amazingly, she survived and lived another 29 years. [Read my blog about her surgery.]

Regency Surgery Was Rude and Crude

Regency surgery was rude and crude and painful. Patients underwent operations without anesthesia, without antibiotics, and with very little in the way of antiseptics and analgesics. Yet they bravely submitted to the knife when they believed that doing so might save their life. The miracle is that some survived.

But what about the surgeons? What was it like for them? It wasn’t much better, as you’ll discover in my next blog.


1. The quote is from James M. Edmonson. American Surgical Instruments: An Illustrated History of Their Manufacture and A Directory of Instrument Makers to 1900. (San Francisco: Norman Publishing, 1997), p. 8.

2.  Credit for the featured image at the top of this blog post: Thomas Rowlandson, 1793. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.