The Barber-Surgeon

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The Black Death (Bubonic and Pneumonic Plagues) that swept westward across Europe in the 14th to 17th Centuries, forever changed the face of medicine and those who practiced it.

In medieval times, there were basically three categories of the medical profession: Physician, Surgeon and Barber. (There were also three general groupings of pharmaceutical workers: Apothecary, Herbalist, and Hedge Witch.)

Physicians and Surgeons at a Dissection

By the end of the major wave of plague, at the beginning of the 15th Century, most of the Physicians and many of the Surgeons had died. This left the lower level of practioners, the Barbers, with some of the most populous Guilds and Companies. As a result, to keep some semblance of power, many of the more respectable Guilds of Surgeons combined their resources -- much to their displeasure -- with Companies of Barbers.

The Surgeon's Chest

In England, King Henry VIII signed a decree merging the two groups into the Great Company of Barbers and Surgeons. This event was captured for posterity in the famous Hans Holbein portrait.

The Company was authorized to review, license and punish persons who would practice "...the noble art of Chiurgery (surgery)..." and, as such, ordered to train prospective barber-surgeons, find employment for them, and to take care of guild members and their families for life.

The Elizabethan Quack and His Patients

(to be continued)



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