Today, a Renaissance surgeon comes to grips with
suffering. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The myth that war stimulates
invention is fiction. The facts don't bear it out.
Yet author Sherwin Nuland tells an ironic story
about a case where war did serve innovation. He
tells about the 16th-century barber-surgeon
Paré was born in 1510. Life around him was
an unending series of small wars. Those wars were
being waged with a new weapon: firearms. Shot and
shrapnel had come of age, and they were making war
more terrible than ever.
Paré trained in Paris as a barber-surgeon.
He worked in that dirty, brutal trade while it
dealt with new kinds of wounds. Surgeons worked for
physicians, and physicians thought gunpowder was
poisonous -- that gunshot wounds had to be
cauterized with boiling oil. So soldiers, already
horribly damaged, were then scalded with boiling
The siege of Turin in 1537 found a very young
Paré facing too much carnage. His
cauterizing oil ran out, and as a stopgap he tried
a cold mix of egg yolks, oil of roses, and
turpentine. He accidently created two test groups.
As the soldiers healed, the ones who weren't
scalded recovered far more quickly.
It was a moment of revelation for Paré. It
suddenly hit him that the center of his job as a
barber-surgeon was to ease suffering -- a point
normally overlooked in his work. Never mind the
Latin-based medical orthodoxy of the physicians. A
patient in pain could teach him what arcane
theories could not. And Paré was a gifted
From that day on, he created a new and humane
concept of medicine and surgery. He wrote simply
and directly about what he saw -- in French, not
Latin. His clear-headed techniques won him
acceptance into medical circles. He was given the
beachhead he needed to make his ideas part of
Paré's medical conversion was fed by
religious conviction. He invented a phrase that's
been worn down into a pious cliché. When he
said, over and over, "I dressed the wound, but God
healed him," he was simply reminding himself where
his own abilities stopped.
Paré's lifelong enemy was firearms. Once he
Wherefore we all of us rightfully curse the
author of so pernicious an engine; On the contrary
praise those to the skies, who endeavor by words
and pious exhortations to [dissuade] kings from
Nuland says of Paré that "he was
much less fascinated by the process of disease than
by the patient, a fellow human in distress." And so
it was that when war touched this man of peace, it
created the next leap forward in clinical medicine.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Nuland, S.B., Doctors: The Biography of
Medicine. New York, Vintage Books, 1988.
Paré, A., The Apologie and Treatise of
Ambroise Paré. New York: Dover
Publications, Inc., 1968.
Malgaigne, J. F., Surgery and Ambroise
Paré. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma
A set of Ambroise Paré's cauterizing
instruments as shown in: The
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Works of that Famous Chirurgion Ambrose
Parey, London: 1624
(Both images courtesy of the Yale
University, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical
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