Early Surgery & Cautery: Or How to Boil a Puppy

By Holly Tucker

How did early surgeons control bleeding? Many of you can guess the answer. For as horrific as it sounds, cautery with hot metal instruments and boiling oil were the methods of choice in the 16th and 17th centuries.

What is less well-known, however, is that the practice was thoroughly critiqued by Ambroise Pare, one of the most prominent French surgeons of the early-modern period.

In his First Discourse Upon Wounds Made by Gunshot (published in English in 1617), Pare experimented with salves as a way to avoid causing his patients the intense pain that comes--understandably--with pouring boiling oil on open wounds.

"I observed the method of the other Chirgurians in the first dressing of [gunshot] wounds, which was by the application and infusion of the Olye as hot as they could suffer it...:wherefore I became embolded to do as they did. But in the end, my oyle fayled me, so that I was constrained to use in steede thereof, a digestive made of the yolke of an Egge, Oyle of Roses and Terebinth. The night following, I could hardly sleepe at mine ease, fearing lest that for want of cauterizing, I should find my Patients on whom I had not used the aforesayed Oyle, dead and impoysoned; which made mee to rise earely in the morning to visit them: where beyond my expectation, I found those on whom I had used the disgestive medicine, to feele but little paine, and their wounds without inflammation or tumor, having resting well all that night.

The rest, on whom the aforesaide Oyle was applyed, I found them inclining to Feavers, with great pain, tumor, and inflammation about their Woundes: then I resolved with myselfe never to burn so cruelly the wounded Patients by Gunshot anymore."

Pare continued to pursue his studies on post-surgical balms. Not long after, he went to Paris and met with the King's surgeon. This high ranking surgeon gave Pare the "receipt" for his own balm. And, I should add here my history of medicine students cry out in protest when I remind them that "whelps" mean puppies...


"He sent me to fetch him two young whelpes, one pound of earth-wormes, two pounds of the oyle of Lillies, six ounces of the Terebinth of Venice, and one ounce of Aqua-vitae: and in my presence he boiled the whelpes alive in the saide Oyle, until the flesh departed from the bones. Afterward, he tooke the wormes (having before killed and purified them in white wine, to purge themselves of the earth which they have always in their bodies) being so prepared, he boyled them also in the said Oyle till they became dry, this he strained through a Napkin, without any great expressions, that done, he added thereto the Terebinth, and lastly, the Aqua-vitae, and called God to witnesse, that this was his Balme which is used in all wounds made by Gunshot."

I'll stick with neosporin, bactine, and my favorite hand lotion...Thanks.

Image: Ambroise Pare, De la methode curative des playes, et fractures de la teste humaine (1651). Wellcome Library, London

Stumble Upon Toolbar


  1. He made puppies into ingredients? Not right. :(


Let us know what you're thinking!

To keep up with what others are saying about this post too, just click "subscribe [to these comments] by email" below.

And, as always, we love reader email:
editor [at]