The Barber Pole was Once a Symbol of Surgeons
It’s probably no surprise that the history of medicine is a bit bloody and macabre at times.
From stone age neurosurgeons who practiced trephination of the brain as a means to release evil spirits, and at the same time unwittingly relieve intracranial pressure; to the body snatchers of the 18th century who would rob graves and steal the bodies of the recently hung for the underground dissection rooms of surgeons who wished to expand their knowledge of anatomy in a day when dissections were illegal, medical progress often stands on the shoulders of some pretty gruesome stories.
But what, exactly, do barbers have to do with medicine, and how were barber poles once a symbol of surgeons?
It’s rather simple, actually. As the medical system of medieval England began to develop in the 12th century, there was a divide between physicians and surgeons. Physicians were learned men (yes, primarily men) who attended a university course that focused on non-surgical interventions, and thus were men of letters and social standing in polite society. As became their educational status, they did not trifle in such dirty matters as surgery.
This does not mean that surgery wasn’t happening in Europe at this time. Quite the contrary, surgical procedures were common. Among them, bloodletting, or phlebotomy, in which a patient’s veins were opened to allow excess blood to flow free. Modern historians and scientists think that George Washington was killed by the well-meaning ministrations of his personal physician, who prescribed bloodletting. And if a surgeon was not around to open the vein, then leaches could be used.
Medicine: An Evolving Art and Science
Now, before you judge our medical progenitors too harshly, remember that in a hundred years what we consider cutting-edge medical treatment may be maligned and mocked as well.
It reminds me of the scene in Start Trek IV: The Voyage Home (yes, I am quite the nerd) where the crew of the USS Enterprise has travelled back in time, and Lieutenant Pavel Chekov has been injured and taken to a 1990s hospital in San Francisco.
Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy to the rescue disguised as a contemporary surgeon! In so doing, Bones encounters an elderly woman who is scheduled for dialysis. Bones replies, “Dialysis, what is this the dark ages?” before giving the woman a pill that will cure her diabetes.
When Bones finally finds the injured crewmember, Chekov is about to undergo trephination to relieve the pressure from a head injury. Speaking to the neurosurgeons, Bones states, “My god, man, drilling holes in his head is not the answer… put away your butcher knives!”
You can watch the video clip here… good stuff!
Back to the Barber Pole Question
Anyway, the take home message is that surgery was happening, and had been happening for quite some time. But physicians, those learned men of letters, considered themselves too lofty to engage in such dirty work. So, they began to look around for someone who was handy with a knife. At one time, this work had been done by priests, but this had been outlawed by the church. I suppose they could have chosen butchers, but instead they landed on the idea of employing barbers to do the cutting. Barbers we well-known for their dexterity with a knife, and the ability to use sharp blades in sensitive areas without killing their clients.
And so, the Barber-Surgeon was Born!
Whenever a learned man of medicine needed some cutting done, he would send his patients to the same man who shaved his face. Often times the barber would use the same blade for both evacuating a boil and shaving a face. A situation that led to plenty of post-operative wounds. But then again, this was the age before the germ theory of disease, let alone antiseptic procedures. And if the patient died? Well, at least it was at the hands of the barber-surgeon, and not the lofty physician.
Eventually, these barber surgeons formed their own guild, or professional organization known as the Company of Barber-Surgeons in 1540, which strictly controlled entry into the profession. The Royal College of Surgeons, which represents surgeons in the UK, is the lineal descendent of this original Company of Barber Surgeons.
Yes, But What About the Barber Pole?
Ah, the modern barber pole, which in England has alternating red and white stripes, while in North American blue is added into the mix.
History tells us that the original barber poles were just that; wooden poles that patients could clamp down on while the barber-surgeon plied his bloody trade without the aid of anesthesia. Well, anesthesia in the sense we think of it. I’ve no doubt a healthy dose of grog helped steal the nerves of the patient, and possibly the barber-surgeon as well, before the work of the day.
Eventually, the barber pole evolved as we know it today; with the red representing blood, the white representing the bandages used to stop the bleeding. While in North America blue was added in to represent the blue color of the veins.
Dual Degrees are Born
Eventually, the designation between physician and surgeon began to break down. Surgeon became a professional role, just as physician, requiring didactic as well as practical training.
But that doesn’t mean the dichotomy between medicine and surgery completely disappeared. To this day, medical schools in the United Kingdom, as well as the Commonwealth, confer a joint degree known as a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS), signifying the ability of the learned graduate to practice both medicine and surgery. In Ireland, an additional designation known as a bachelors of arts in obstetrics if often added, suggesting I suppose that the delivery of babies is more art than science.
There remain some classical designations between surgeons and physicians, particularly in the UK and the Commonwealth, but we’ll save that discussion for another day.
If you want to read more about the fascinating history of the barber-surgeons, I recommend this excellent article.
Want to Become a Surgeon?
Among medical students, surgery is often times considered the Holy Grail of specialties. Perhaps it is the idea that surgeons solve problems quickly with the flash of the scalpel, and thus have some amount of bon vivant cache in the medical community. Or maybe it’s because then are paid so well for their efforts. Regardless, it is a much sought-after residency program.
But before you can become a surgeon, you need to graduate from medical school. And if you are going to pursue surgery, you need a good school behind you. That’s where UHSA comes in. We have been creating amazing doctors since 1982, meaning we know how to help you live your dream.
For those of you have graduated from university and have the premedical requirements, our direct-entry MD program is for you.
If you are still missing some premedical courses, are a recent high school graduate with your eyes set on the prize of becoming a doctor as quickly as possible, then our accelerated premedical program is right for you.
We also offer an innovative joint MD/MPH program that will allow you to graduate with both your medical degree and the much-respected masters of public health. This will enhance your career prospects, as well as prepare you for careers in areas like preventative medicine and international health.
Let us help turn your dream into reality. Contact our Admissions Team today to learn how you can join the UHSA family!