Go back to article: Wounded: ‘They had no fever…’ Ambroise Paré (1510–1590) and his method of gunshot wounds management


To conclude, in the texts of Paré, da Vigo and Le Paulmier, we see the appearance of several surgical techniques. One might imagine that all of these became outdated and are now known only by medical historians, and yet some are still in use today. For example, during the Second World War, cauterisation was used to treat gunshot wounds in the German army – it is mentioned in the memoirs of Hans Killian (Killian, 1966) who was a military surgeon of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Of course, German surgeons used this method in the absence of other medicines in the extreme environment of battle, and the procedure often caused gangrene and mortification of tissues. Surgeons to this day practice cauterisation of vessels to stop bleeding. Nevertheless the introduction of firearms into European warfare changed medical practice and some aspects of the remedies developed by Paré and his contemporaries to treat gunshot wounds also remain in use to this day.

Paré’s gunshot wound treatment was developed through rejection of earlier established theory and through direct experimentation. Many modern scholars describe it as an example of a victory of modern science against scholasticism (Porter, 1998, pp 188–189; Grmek, 1996, p 238). However, we must acknowledge that we do not know the exact details of Paré’s experiment: how many patients did he treat and how badly were they hurt, for example? Moreover, his personal success story did not change common practices, as da Vigo’s book remained in demand up to the eighteenth century.

In reality none of these surgeons knew exactly what was going on inside the wound after dressing. Paré clearly understood that the power of a surgeon is restricted by the forces of nature; as expressed in his famous words ‘I dressed him and God cured him’. What is central to his practice is his desire not to cause pain to the patient, something which is absolutely innovative in the sixteenth century as the era of painless surgery began much later.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191105/005