Ambroise Paré (1510-1590) is widely considered the greatest surgeon of the sixteenth century. Renowned as much for his compassion as his surgical skill, Paré guided his life with a humble credo of patient care: "I dressed him, God cured him."
Paré was born in an era in which physicians considered surgery well beneath their dignity. Doctors left all cutting to the lowly barber-surgeons. Pare initially served as an apprentice to a barber in the French provinces, and at age 19 went to Paris where he became a surgical student at the famous Hotel Dieu hospital. After his graduation in 1536, Pare joined the army as a regimental surgeon. He served intermittently in the army for the next 30 years, during which time he also developed a flourishing private practice and gained fame through his writings and his considerate, democratic treatment of soldiers of all ranks. Before his career ended, he had acted as surgeon to four French kings as well.
It was during the siege of Turin (1536-1537) that Paré made his first great medical discovery. Gunshot wounds, a new medical condition, were considered poisonous and routinely treated by cauterization (sealing off) with boiling oil. When Paré ran out of oil during the siege, he turned instead to simple dressings and soothing ointment, and immediately noted the improved condition of his patients. Pare popularized this revolutionary treatment in his Method of Treating Wounds in 1545.
Paré's next contribution to medicine was his promotion of ligature (tying off) of blood vessels to prevent hemorrhage (uncontrolled bleeding) during amputations. In a book on these new techniques, Pare also included large parts of Andreas Vesalius's authoritative work on anatomy, translated from the original Latin into French. This information dramatically increased the barber-surgeon's knowledge of anatomy, since the typical barber-surgeon was never taught Latin as part of his training.
Paré was an innovator, always willing to try new practices. He favored massage and designed a number of artificial limbs as well as an artificial eye. He advanced obstetrics (the study of childbirth) by reintroducing podalic version (turning a fetus in utero into a position possible for birth) and inducing premature labor in cases of uterine hemorrhage. As always, he spread knowledge of these discoveries through his writings.
Paré's greatest accomplishment, aside from actually coming up with new surgical techniques, was to spread this information throughout the barber-surgeon community, elevating surgery's status to a professional level and paving the way for vast improvements in surgical care.
[See also Bandages and dressings ]