The Operating Department Practitioner
It is surprising to know that in the centuries prior to the twentieth, the position of surgeon and surgical assistant was in nearly all cases undertaken by men.
The reason behind this was simply because the surgeon needed to be physically strong.
The surgeon also required several assistants during the procedure, (prior to anaesthesia) who were powerful enough to hold down and restrain the patient; these assistants were called Handlers. 6
There is recorded in one of the London Hospital journals, that a bell was rung to assemble the Handlers to hold down the patient prior to surgery. On hearing this bell a cold shiver would run down the spines of some of the patients on the ward, they knowing that some unfortunate individual, who was about to be operated upon, was shortly going to suffer excruciating pain; they themselves having gone through the self-same tortuous experience. 7
Edward Morris wrote in his book The London Hospital:
“The introduction of anaesthetics is undoubtedly one of the two most important factors contributing to the advance of surgery, the other being the introduction of antiseptics. The great abdominal operations were impossible when patients had to be strapped to the table, or held down by volunteers, while the surgeon did his awful work. The patient's inability to bear unlimited pain and the surgeon’s inability to inflict unlimited pain— for, strange as it may appear, some of the surgeons shrank from this part of their work, and would never perform any large operation—entirely prevented advancement in surgery beyond a certain point. There are still ghastly relics in the Hospital of these terrible days: the great wooden operating table with its straps; the bell which was sounded before an operation to call assistants to hold down the patient—a bell whose dreadful clank could be heard by every shivering patient in the building, including the patient, often a little child; a bell with a voice loud enough and harsh enough to make all Whitechapel shudder.” 8
The term Dressers and porters were also given to the people who were expected to handle the patients and stop them moving.
The use of blindfolds and straps were common, also gags were used to null the screams of the patient.
The view that all the patients that undertook surgery, writhed and screamed was in fact untrue as there were those who never murmured but gritted their teeth and bore all.