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The Best Surgeon in England

Percivall Pott, 1713–88

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Lynda Payne

Percivall Pott (1713–88) was a leading surgeon in eighteenth-century Britain. This work mines the rich biographical and bibliographical record Pott and his students left behind to add to the historical and intellectual understanding of pre-modern surgery. This was a time when surgery was becoming professionalized. Pott maintained a significant role in crafting the image of a professional surgeon as someone who is capable of treating a multitude of poor hospital patients while at the same time effectively teaching operative skills and manners to the next generation of young men and running a successful and wealth-producing private practice.

Pott had more medical conditions named after him during his lifetime than any other surgeon of his era or since; analyzing what conditions surgeons claimed were theirs to manage and what ailments patients sought surgical solutions for reveals the importance and power of rhetoric in crafting the increasingly rigid definition of medicine as a sophisticated scientific activity rather than a mundane lay experience of treating sickness. The practice of naming conditions after surgeons also helps lay bare the power to classify and own certain sites in the body.

An account of Pott’s life and work challenges the prevailing view in historiographical works of surgery before the era of general anesthesia as a realm of screaming patients and larger than life eccentric medical men whose primary aims were to operate as fast as possible. Through an examination of the life and work of the man rated the best surgeon in England by his contemporaries, the whole field of surgery in history becomes humanized.

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LYNDA PAYNE is the inaugural Sirridge Missouri Endowed Professor in Medical Humanities and Bioethics at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, School of Medicine, and also is Professor of History at UMKC. She received a M.A. in Mediaeval history from the University of Edinburgh and a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science from the University of California at Davis. Payne has practiced as a registered nurse, a respiratory therapist, and a psychiatric social worker. Her book With Words and Knives: Learning Medical Dispassion in Early Modern England (2007) examines how boys were turned into surgeons in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, and the effect this training had on their feelings toward themselves and their patients. Payne’s work has been supported by The Friends-of-the-Library of the University of Wisconsin at Madison; The Klemperer Fellowship in the History of Medicine, New York Academy of Medicine; The Wood Institute Fellowship at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia; The National Endowment for the Humanities: The Woodrow Wilson Foundation; The Huntington Library in Pasadena; and The Wellcome Trust.

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