Military Surgical Practice and the Advent of Gunpowder Weaponry
By Kelly DeVries
Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, Vol.7:2 (1990)
Abstract: In 1536, at the siege of Turin, French military surgeon Ambroise Paré changed surgical history. At that time, it was the custom to treat gunshot wounds by pouring boiling oil into them, often without removing the fragment or bullet. Paré, having run out of this cauterizing mixture, was forced to use a non-abrasive digestive to treat some of his wounded patients. This surgical procedure ultimately proved that gunshot wounds should not be treated by cauterization.
Gunpowder weapons, however, had been in use for more than two centuries before Pare’s discovery. During this time undoubtedly many victims wounded with gunshot must have suffered through cauterization. This has given rise to the belief among modern medical historians that the tradition of treating gunshot wounds which Paré corrected was formed and developed during the late Middle Ages.
This article takes an opposing viewpoint to that theory. Using both late medieval surgical manuals and examples of gunshot wound treatment found in chronicles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it shows instead that those late medieval surgeons who treated gunshot wounds did so in a manner not unlike their treatment of non-gunshot wounds, without cauterization.
Moreover, the responsibility for the harsh treatment which Paré altered should instead be laid at the feet of the early sixteenth-century surgeon Giovanni da Vigo. It was from his popular surgical manual that most surgeons, including Paré, had learned incorrectly their treatment of gunshot wounds.