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September 1983

The Changing Mission and Status of Surgery 1780 to 1980

Arch Surg. 1983;118(9):1013-1018. doi:10.1001/archsurg.1983.01390090003001

By about 1750, medicine and surgery in the American Colonies had become somewhat more sophisticated than in the past. Smallpox inoculation had been introduced by a surgeon in 17211 and was widely used, although vaccination, introduced in 1798, soon surpassed it.2 Digitalis, extensively used after its description by William Withering (1741-1799) in 1783, was coming into cultivation and common use in this country. Chemistry was undergoing its birth pangs at the hands of Lavoisier (1743-1794) and Priestley (1733-1804) in France and England. Some roots, herbs, berries, and barks, such as those of belladonna and cinchona, were extracted or used raw as drugs. Heavy metals, especially arsenic and mercury, were used by both physicians and surgeons for a variety of purposes, some of which might seem ridiculous today. Amputation for compound fracture, closed reduction for simple fracture, and lancing of abscesses were often performed competently.

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