Under the Knife: A History of Surgery in 28 Remarkable Operations

Under the Knife: A History of Surgery in 28 Remarkable Operations

by Arnold van de Laar Laproscopic surgeon


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Surgeon Arnold van de Laar uses his own experience and expertise to tell this engrossing history of surgery through 28 famous operations—from Louis XIV and Einstein to JFK and Houdini.

From the story of the desperate man from seventeenth-century Amsterdam who grimly cut a stone out of his own bladder to Bob Marley's deadly toe, Under the Knife offers a wealth of fascinating and unforgettable insights into medicine and history via the operating room.

What happens during an operation? How does the human body respond to being attacked by a knife, a bacterium, a cancer cell or a bullet? And, as medical advances continuously push the boundaries of what medicine can cure, what are the limits of surgery?

With stories spanning the dark centuries of bloodletting and amputations without anaesthetic through today's sterile, high-tech operating rooms, Under the Knife is both a rich cultural history, and a modern anatomy class for us all.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250200105
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/02/2018
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 489,390
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

ARNOLD VAN DE LAAR is a surgeon in the Slotervaart Hospital in Amsterdam, specializing in laparoscopic surgery. Born in the Dutch town of 's-Hertogenbosch, van de Laar studied medicine at the Belgian University of Leuven before taking his first job as general surgeon on the Caribbean Island of Sint Maarten. He now lives in Amsterdam with his wife and two children where, a true Dutchman, he cycles to work every day. Under the Knife is his first book.

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The Stone of Jan de Doot, Smith of Amsterdam

'Aeger sibi calculumpraecidens' – literally translated is 'a sick man cutting out a stone from the front himself' – is the title of a chapter in a book by Nicolaes Tulp, master surgeon and mayor of Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. Tulp describes a wide variety of disorders and other medical curiosities he encountered in his practice in the city. They include 'a twelve-day attack of hiccups', 'the mortification of a thumb after blood-letting', 'a rare cause of objectionable breath', 'a pregnant woman who ate 1,400 salted herring', 'piercing of the scrotum', 'daily urination of worms', 'pain in the anus four hours after defecation', 'pubic lice' and the rather macabre 'a hip burned off with red-hot iron'. He wrote the book Observationes Medicae in Latin to be read by fellow surgeons and doctors. But it was translated into Dutch without his knowledge and became a bestseller among non-medical readers. His description of the smith Jan de Doot, who had cut out his own bladder stone, must have been a favourite, as Jan was portrayed in action on the title page of the book.

Jan de Doot lost all confidence in Tulp's profession and literally took the matter into his own hands. He had suffered from the bladder stone for many years and had twice looked death in the face as a surgeon tried and failed to remove it. This operation is known as a lithotomy, literally 'stone-cutting'. In those days, the mortality rate of a lithotomy – that is, the odds that you would die from it – were 40 per cent. One of the most important attributes of a successful stone-cutter's practice was a good horse, so that he could get as far away as possible before the victim's family could call him to account. The profession of stone-cutter was therefore – like that of tooth-puller and cataract-pricker – by nature a travelling occupation. The advantage of this nomadic existence was that there were always poor wretches in the next village who were suffering so much from their ailments that they were willing to take the risk – and pay for it, too.

De Doot had twice survived the 40 per cent odds of dying under the knife – a combined risk statistically speaking of 64 per cent. So it was pure luck that he was not yet dead. The pain was excruciating, his discomfort unbearable and his nights sleepless. Bladder stones have occurred throughout human history. They have been found in ancient mummies and there have been reports of stone-cutting since time immemorial. Bladder-stone pain was an everyday complaint, like scabies and diarrhoea, and so ubiquitous that you could compare it to present-day ailments like headache, backache or irritable bowel syndrome.

Bladder stones are caused by bacteria and are a direct result of a lack of hygiene. It is a misconception that urine is by nature dirty. In normal circumstances, the yellow fluid is completely free of any kind of pathogens from its origin in the kidneys to its discharge through the urethra. Bacteria in the urine are therefore not normal. They cause blood and pus in the bladder, which can create a gritty sediment. You don't feel it at all, as long as it is still small enough to discharge in the urine. But if you have a succession of bladder infections one after the other, the sediment may become so large that it can no longer find its way out. Then it forms a stone. And, once a stone has formed in your bladder that is too big to be discharged, that tends to generate new infections. So once you had one, you could never get rid of it and, with each infection, it would get bigger. Bladder stones therefore have a characteristically layered structure, like an onion.

Why did people in the seventeenth century get bladder stones so easily, while today they are very rare? Houses in cities like Amsterdam were cold, damp and draughty. The wind blew through the cracks in the doors and window frames, the walls were wet from rising damp, and the snow came in under the front door. There was little to be done about it, so people always wore thick clothing, day and night. Rembrandt's portraits show people in fur coats wearing hats. In those days people were not able to take a daily bath in clean water. The water in the canals was sewer water. Dead rats floated in it, people defecated in it and threw their waste into it, and tanners, brewers and painters discharged their waste chemicals in it. The canals in the Jordaan district of the city were little more than extensions of the muddy ditches that passed through the surrounding pasturelands, so that cow manure flowed slowly into the River Amstel. You couldn't take a decent bath in the waters of the river, or wash out your underwear, and toilet paper had not yet been invented.

Consequently, the groins and private parts of these thickly clothed people were always dirty. The urethra, the tube for discharging urine from the body, presented only a small obstacle to bacteria entering the bladder. The best remedy from this external assault was to urinate as much as possible to rinse the urethra and the bladder clean. But that meant drinking a lot and clean drinking water was hard to come by. The water from the pump was not always trustworthy. The best way to ensure it was safe was to make soup from it. Wine, vinegar and beer could also be kept much longer and, around 1600, the average Dutch citizen would drink more than a litre of beer a day. As this did not apply to children, bladder infections often started during childhood, giving the stones plenty of time to grow.

Any bladder infection will give three unpleasant complaints: pollakisuria (abnormally frequent urination), dysuria (pain when urinating), and urgency (a compelling urge to urinate). Since Tulp described Jan de Doot's deed as an unprecedented tour de force, Jan's bladder must have been causing him terrible pain to make him cut himself open. What complaints, in addition to those of a normal bladder infection, did the smith suffer to drive him to such desperation?

At the exit to the bladder, at the bottom of the urethra, there is a kind of pressure sensor. The sensor is stimulated when you have a full bladder, so that you feel the need to urinate. But a stone lying on the bottom of your bladder will give you the same urge, whether your bladder is full or not. And if you then try to urinate, the pressure will cause the stone to block the exit from the bladder, so that almost nothing comes out. Furthermore, the stone will press even harder against the sensor, increasing the urge. That will cause more pressure, less urine to come out, and a greater urge to urinate – enough to drive you crazy. We know that the Roman emperor Tiberius ordered his torturers to tie up their victims' penises, which of course led to such complaints. If you suffered in this way day and night, whether your bladder was full or empty, what did you care about a 40 per cent chance of survival?

For anyone who has never had a bladder stone, it must be difficult to imagine where you would need to make an incision to get the thing out. But because a stone closing off the exit from the bladder is pushed downward by the pressure, a sufferer like Jan de Doot would know exactly where it could be reached: between the anus and the scrotum. This area is called the perineum. But anyone who is familiar with the human body would never start cutting it open down there – there are too many blood vessels and sphincters in close proximity. It would be easier to access the bladder from above but that is, in turn, dangerously close to the abdomen and the intestines. Because stone-cutters were not anatomists, but crafty conmen with little understanding of what they were doing, they cut into the body from below and went straight for the stone, taking little account of the damage they could be causing to the functioning of the bladder. Most victims who survived the stonecutter's work became incontinent.

In Jan de Doot's time, there were two ways to remove a bladder stone: the 'minor' operation (using the 'apparatus minor') and the 'major' operation (using the 'apparatus major'). The first method was described in the first century AD by the Roman Aulus Cornelius Celsus, but had already been applied for many centuries. The principle of the 'minor' operation is simple. The patient lies on his back with both legs in the air, a position still called the lithotomy position. The stonecutter then sticks his index finger into the patient's anus. This enables you to feel the stone in the bladder in the front, through the rectum. You then pull it towards you with your finger, in the direction of the perineum. You ask the patient – or someone else – to hold the scrotum up, while you make an incision between the scrotum and the anus until you can get at the stone. Then you get the patient to press it out like a woman pushing out a baby. Someone can help him by pressing on his abdomen, or the stone-cutter can pull it out with a hook. If that all works, you then have to stop the patient from bleeding to death by applying considerable pressure to the wound for as long as possible.

It was an operation that could only be performed on men and then only up to the age of about forty. Around that age, a gland swells up that gets in the way of the incision. For that reason, the gland was called the prostate, based on the Latin pro-status, meaning 'standing in front of'.

The 'major' operation was described in 1522 by Marianus Sanctus Barolitanus, a new method devised by his master Joannes de Romanis of Cremona. Instead of bringing the stone to the instrument, the instruments were brought to the stone. The 'Marian operation' required the use of a large number of instruments, hence the term 'apparatus major'. The sight of all these metal tools was often enough to make the patient faint or change his mind. The 'major' operation was also conducted in the lithotomic position, but the scrotum did not need to be lifted out of the way. A bent rod was inserted into the bladder through the penis. A scalpel was used to make a vertical incision in the direction of the rod, between the penis and the scrotum, along the centre line of the perineum. A 'gorget', a grooved instrument, was then inserted into the bladder, through which the stone could be crushed and removed in fragments, using spreaders, forceps and hooks. The advantage of the 'major' operation was that the wound was actually smaller, reducing the risk of incontinence.

De Doot did not have access to all these complicated instruments, so had no choice other than to keep it simple. He only had a knife and performed the 'minor' operation by making a large, crossways incision. The smith had made the knife himself and before getting down to work – not unimportantly – had concocted an excuse to send his wife (who suspected nothing) to the fish market. The only other person present during the operation, on 5 April 1651, was his apprentice, who held his scrotum up out of the way. Tulp writes 'scroto suspenso a fratre uti calculo fermato a sua sinistra (the brother held the scrotum up so that the stone was held in place with his left hand). From his pidgin Latin, however, it is difficult to determine which of the two men had their left index finger in Jan's rectum. Perhaps Jan tried to do everything himself and his assistant simply observed the 'operation' with growing amazement. Jan made three cuts, but the wound was still not wide enough. So he stuck both his index fingers (one of which was obviously his left one) into the wound and tore it open wider. He probably did not suffer a lot of pain and loss of blood, as he went through the scar tissue resulting from the operations he had undergone when he was younger. By pressing vigorously and, according to Dr Tulp, more by luck than judgement, the stone finally emerged, with a lot of crunching and cracking, and fell on the ground. It was larger than a chicken's egg and weighed four ounces. The stone was immortalised in an engraving, along with Jan's knife, in Tulp's book. The drawing clearly shows a longitudinal groove in the stone, probably caused by the knife.

The wound was enormous and eventually had to be treated by a surgeon, and continued to fester for many years. Carel van Savoyen's portrait of Jan, painted four years after his heroic act, shows the smith standing (not sitting!) with a bitter smile on his face and holding both stone and knife.

Not long after Jan de Doot's act of desperation, the primitive incision in the centre of the perineum would be replaced by other methods. Unfortunately, these were not without risk. In the year Jan cut the stone out of his own bladder, a man called Jacques Beaulieu was born in France. Under the name Frère Jacques, Beaulieu travelled around Europe performing the 'major' operation through an incision from the side a few centimetres off the midline. In the early years of the eighteenth century he made a name for himself performing the operation in Amsterdam. As fatalities and complications after the operation decreased, the incision became smaller and the stone could be extracted with greater precision. In 1719, John Douglas performed the first sectio alta, the 'high section' through the lower abdomen. This access route had always been taboo because of a warning by Hippocrates, who believed that a wound on the upper side of the bladder would always be fatal. But he was proved wrong. In the nineteenth century, lithotomy was rendered almost completely obsolete by transurethral lithotripsy, a difficult term for pulverising (-tripsy) the stone (litho) via (trans) the urethra. Narrow, collapsible forceps and files are inserted into the bladder through the penis, and used to break the stone into small fragments. In 1879, the cystoscope was invented in Vienna; this is a small visual probe that can be inserted directly into the bladder through the urethra, making it much easier to pulverise and remove stones. Prevention, however, remains the best treatment. The discovery of daily clean underwear has meant more in combating this great tormentor of mankind that any new operating method. As a consequence, genuine lithotomies are rarely performed now, and never via the perineum. Furthermore, the operation is no longer the domain of the surgeon, but the urologist.

For anyone who is still curious about how a lithotomy between the legs must have felt, the French composer Marin Marais set the 'major' operation he had himself endured in 1725 to music. The piece, for viola da gamba in E minor, is called 'Tableau de l'opération de la taille'. It lasts three minutes and describes the operation's fourteen stages from the perspective of the patient: the sight of the instruments, the fear, bracing oneself and approaching the operating table, climbing onto the table, climbing off again, reconsidering the operation, allowing yourself to be tied to the table, the incision, the introduction of the forceps, the extraction of the stone, almost losing your voice, the blood flowing, being released from the table and taken to bed.

Jan de Doot became famous throughout the country. Many people will have declared him insane. The month after the operation, he described his actions in a deed drawn up by notary Pieter de Bary in Amsterdam on 31 May 1651. It noted that 'Jan de Doot, resident in the Engelsche Steeg, of 30 years of age ...' had also produced a poem about it '... written, rhymed and composed with his own hand'. The proud smith alluded to the fact that, although both his action and his last name suggested that he should have been dead, he was still alive:

What wonders the whole land About this fortunate hand? Although it is a deed of man It's guided by God's own plan. When to survive was quite remote He gave life again to de Doot.

What must his wife have thought when she returned from the market?


Excerpted from "Under the Knife"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Arnold van de Laar.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction - Healing by Hand: Chirurgeons and Surgeons
1. Lithotomy - The Stone of Jan de Doot, Smith of Amsterdam
2. Asphyxia - The Tracheotomy of the Century: President Kennedy
3. Wound Healing - The Royal Prepuce: Abraham and King Louis XVI
4. Shock - The Lady and the Anarchist: Empress Sisi
5. Obesity - Popes: From Peter to Francis
6. Stoma - The Miracle Bullet: Karol Wojtyla
7. Fracture - Dr Democedes and the Greek Method: King Darius
8. Varicose Veins - Lucy and Modern-Day Surgery: Australopithecus afarensis
9. Peritonitis - The Death of an Escape Artist: Harry Houdini
10. Narcosis - L'anaethesie a la reine: Queen Victoria
11. Gangrene - The Battle of Little Bay: Peter Stuyvesant
12. Diagnosis - Doctors and Surgeons: Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes
13. Complications - The Maestro and the Shah: Mohammed Reza Pahlavi
14. Dissemination - Two Musicians and Their Big Toes: Lully and Bob Marley
15. Abdomen - The Romans and Abdominoplasty: Lucius Apronius Caesianus
16. Aneurysm - The Relativity Surgery: Albert Einstein
17. Laparoscopy - Endoscopy and the Minimal Invasive Revolution
18. Castration - The History of a Very Small Operation: Adam, Eve and Farinelli
19. Lung Cancer - Thracotomy at Home: King George VI
20. Placebo - The Fifth Man on the Moon: Alan Shepard
21. Umbilical Hernia - The Miserable Death of a Stout Lady: Queen Caroline
22. Short Stay, Fast Track - Rebels and Revolutions: Bassini and Lichtenstein
23. Mors in tabula - The Limits of Surgery: Lee Harvey Oswald
24. Prosthesis - Une belle epaule de la belle epoque: The Baker Jules Paradox
25. Stroke - The Neck of Vladimir Ilyich Uljanov: Lenin
26. Gastrectomy - Cowboys and Surgeons: Frau Therese Heller
27. Anal Fistula - La Grande Operation: King Louis XIV
28. Electricity - 600 Volts: The Electric Eel at Artis Zoo
Epilogue - The Surgeon of the Future: A Top 10

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