Health and Medicine

Brutal Medical Diagrams Reveal Horrors Of 19th-Century Surgery

January 25, 2016 | by Ben Taub

For much of the 19th century, surgery was carried out without anaesthetic.
Photo credit: For much of the 19th century, surgery was carried out without anaesthetic. Wellcome Library

The next time you find yourself squirming at the thought of going to the dentist or having an injection, just remember how lucky you are to live in an age of anaesthetics, decent sanitation, and all-round high levels of medical expertise. This certainly has not always been the case – a fact revealed in all its gruesome glory by these gut-wrenching images of 19th-century medical procedures.

Obtained from the archives of the Wellcome Trust and assembled in a new book entitled "Crucial Interventions," the horrific diagrams show how doctors used to cut tumors out of patients’ tongues and breasts, amputate fingers and perform eye surgery, all without anaesthetics. One can only imagine the amount of pain that these patients must have been in, and those who didn’t die on the operating table later ran a high risk of infection after being sewn back up, with the first antibiotic not being discovered until the 1900s.

Who needs fingers anyway?

Among the operations depicted is a horrendous jaw reconstruction, which appeared in a medical-surgical textbook in the 1840s and shows an unfortunate patient having his face dismantled. Another depicts an arm amputation that looks more like a street stabbing.

Jaw reconstruction surgery in the 19th century was not fun.

Advances in the field of anaesthetics were made over the course of the 1800s, with nitrous oxide gas first being used to put a patient to sleep during a medical procedure in 1846.

The first stages of an arm amputation.

While medicine may still be far from perfect, at least we can all rest easy in the knowledge that we’ll never be subjected to any of the grisly operations that were commonplace in centuries gone by.

Foot amputation, performed without anaesthetics.

All images courtesy of the Wellcome Library

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