In America, tens-of-millions of major surgical procedures are performed annually but few of us pause to consider the magnitude of these figures because we have such inherent confidence in surgeons. And, despite passionate debates about healthcare and the endless fascination with surgical procedures, most of us have no idea how surgeons came to be because the story of surgery has never been fully told. From a surgeon and historian comes a history of surgery's development—spanning the Stone Age to the present day.
As Rutkow writes, the emergence of surgery from its barbaric past rested on four pillars — the understanding of anatomy, the control of bleeding, anesthesia and antisepsis. The story, however, is not one of steady, rational progress ... The history of surgery, especially until the modern era, is as much about doctors’ innate conservatism as it is about innovation. It is, however, ultimately a history of triumphant progress — although not without dark episodes ... Rutkow discusses at great length the evolution of surgery as a separate specialty, and the rivalry between surgeons and other medical practitioners. But even here, in the rather tedious detail, there are human stories ... Rutkow is a surgeon, but freely admits he has always been more drawn to the history of surgery than surgery itself, and he confines his own surgical practice to relatively simple cases. Readers of the book looking for the blood and drama that is such a vital part of surgery will not find much of it. Instead, they will learn that the history of modern surgery is the history of the rise of the modern world, with all that has involved — not just science and technology but also politics, architecture, demographics and institutions.
Ira Rutkow’s Empire of the Scalpel: The History of Surgery romps through the field’s development from rude 'sawbones' trade to meticulous professional discipline. Rutkow has a raconteur’s touch, and he is especially good on the rugged, difficult, obstinate characters that propelled the field’s advance during a heroic age of medicine ... He’s also notably generous. Perhaps to a fault ... There’s much to marvel at in surgery’s history, but its practitioners today command status and prestige.
Rutkow’s history links surgical advances to concurrent social and scientific developments ... Rutkow’s book is interspersed with depictions of significant, largely Western figures in the history of surgery and experiences from his 40 years as a surgeon ... This is a well-documented and jargon-free work, aimed at helping laypeople better understand surgery and its practitioners.