Regency-era surgery was awful for patients, but it was also awful for surgeons. Surgeons performed operations to save lives, even while knowing their skill caused extreme pain.
Surgery without Anesthesia
During the Regency era (which lasted from about 1789 to 1830) (1), there was no proper anesthesia, which meant that patients were given only a cordial or a glass of wine before the surgery started. Can you imagine undergoing an arm amputation, a mastectomy, or having a stone removed from the bladder (as shown at right) without anesthesia? If you were a Regency surgeon, you ignored your patient’s screams and pleas as he fought the bindings or the hands that pinned him to the surgical table or bed. You concentrated on the operation while your patient yelled and cussed and squirmed and called you every abominable name in the book. It must have been a relief if a patient fainted from the trauma.
A Good Surgeon Was Quick with a Knife
Regency surgeons fortified themselves before making the first incision, whether the patient was an adult or child, because the most dreadful part of surgery was the patient’s pain. The best surgeons operated quickly, which meant their patients endured great agony for only a short time. A good surgeon cut into tissue with confidence, despite his patient’s screams (2).
Children were especially difficult to operate on because they had little worldly experience and thus had not, as a rule, experienced extreme pain. Astley Paston Cooper, probably the Regency era’s most revered surgeon, was said to have lost control of his emotions only one time. He agreed to operate on a friend’s toddler to remove a birthmark. Just before he undertook the incision, the toddler smiled sweetly at him. Cooper became so overwhelmed with emotion that he turned his back to the child and cried (3).
Surgery Was a Gamble
Surgery was a gamble for Regency patients. There were no effective anesthetics, no antibiotics, and few antiseptics or analgesics. Many operations were performed in the patient’s home. It is a testament to their courage that despite knowing they faced great pain, risk of infection, and death, many Regency patients agreed to undergo the knife. They believed surgery was their only hope for staying alive.
About the Featured Image Above
The featured image at the top of this blog shows an oil painting by Jan Josef Horemans. A man is being operated on. The surgeon is the man with his back to the viewer. The man in the red coat is the surgeon’s apprentice who is undertaking the operation. The woman shying away from the surgery might be the patient’s wife or the next patient. Above her head are shelves lined with crocks containing healing oils and unguents. Source: Interior with a surgeon and his apprentice attending to a patient. Oil painting by Jan Josef Horemans, 1722. (Source: Wellcome Collection, public domain)
- Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Regency Britain. (New York and London: Pegasus Books, 2022), Author’s Note, p. xiii.
- Peter Stanley. For Fear of Pain: British Surgery, 1790-1850. (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi B.V., 2003), p. 218.
- ibid., p. 241.