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The Morbid History Of Victorian Surgery, Beautifully Illustrated

Richard Barnett’s Crucial Interventions covers a critical century in medical history through a smorgasbord of gruesome lithographs.

If you’re the type of person who gets dizzy at the sight of a little blood, you might want to stay away from Crucial Interventions. A gorgeously designed new book from Thames & Hudson, it’s a head-to-toe compendium of some of the strangest, most beautiful, and downright grotesque surgical illustrations to come out of the 19th century.

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Author and medical historian Richard Barnett hesitates to call Crucial Interventions a coffee table book. “Perhaps a family of serial killers might keep it on their coffee table,” he laughs. Others might want to place it elsewhere, because there’s some gnarly stuff in Crucial Interventions, including incredibly detailed illustrations of sliced-open eyeballs, amputated fingers, Caesarian sections, dissected tongues, and more.

Surgical saws, knives and shears for operations on bone© Wellcome Collection

Crucial Interventions tells the story of a formative era in the history of medicine. At the beginning of the century, physicians considered themselves more artists than scientists, surgeons were essentially considered tradesmen, and patients had to endure surgery wide awake–a terrifying, agonizing ordeal. But that all changed by the close of the century. Medicine was now more science than art. Surgeons were widely respected and richly rewarded for their skills. As for surgery, it was no longer a matter of last resort. Anesthesia made it cleaner, safer, and more accessible. The collected illustrations of the era tell the story of that transition better than words alone could.

Surgical anotomy of the large intestine (front view) Right: Surgical anatomy of the large intestine (rear view)© Wellcome Collection

The illustrations come from the Wellcome Collection, a London-based museum devoted to unusual medical artifacts and artwork. They were originally produced for medical textbooks and atlases to disseminate surgical knowledge. “They embody a certain a certain self-consciously rational, scientific way of looking at the human body,” Barnett says. And they were made by professional draughtsmen, colorists, and engravers, all practicing their craft at a key moment in the history of publishing, when it suddenly became possible to mass-produce lithographs. “No one ever had books so crisp, colorful, and accurate before,” Barnett says. Medical illustrations were the perfect way to show off the technology.

You can order a copy of Crucial Interventions online through Amazon here. Make no mistake, though. Although Crucial Interventions is a fascinating exploration of 19th-century surgical techniques, an exploration of lithographic design, and a morbid coffee table book, all at once, it’s not meant to be a DIY manual. “I certainly wouldn’t advise a modern surgeon to follow these instructions,” Barnett says.

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