At the beginning of the 16th century many surgical and medical treatments had not changed for hundreds of years. The main method of stopping a wound bleeding, for example, was to cauterise or seal it with a hot iron. Muslim doctors had developed this technique 500 years earlier. The man who stumbled upon a better method was Ambroise Paré.
Who was Ambroise Paré?
Paré originally trained as a barber-surgeon and later joined the French army as a surgeon. The French were involved in many wars during the 16th century so Paré gained a great deal of practical experience.
How did he make his breakthrough?
It was by chance that Paré made his important discovery about the treatment of soldiers' wounds. In an attempt to stop soldiers bleeding to death, wounds were usually scorched with burning oil or a hot iron to seal them. Paré had run out of oil in the battlefield so had to try an alternative method. He made a dressing of egg whites, oil of roses and turpentine, which he applied to a wound. The dressing successfully sealed the wound and provided relief from pain. Paré also developed the use of a ligature to stop bleeding after an amputation. He realised that by tightening a belt around an artery the blood supply could be stemmed.
Was he accepted by the medical establishment of his day?
Few surgeons adopted Paré's ideas. He had no formal university medical training and this meant that many other physicians did not take his ideas seriously. However, Paré did enjoy a long medical career, during which he made other advances to help wounded soldiers, including the design of artificial limbs. Paré was also interested in obstetrics; he wrote a book on midwifery and founded a school for midwives in Paris.
How important was Paré?
Paré's ideas were important as he developed an alternative to cauterization which was a major breakthrough in wound treatment. Despite opposition from the medical establishment, his case studies were published with the support of the King.