From a simple speculum designed to examine patients, to a scalpel ready to intervene on any soldier after bloody combat. Although they were invented two millennia ago, the instruments used by Roman doctors could be the frontier between life and death for the legionaries who, under the incessant rain of Britain or the heat of Egypt, fought for their lives armed so only with a pilum and a gladius. However, despite its simplicity, this instrument revolutionized the field of medicine of the time. The same happened with Roman Military Health, the most advanced at that time and which served as the basis for all martial medicine that exists today in Spain.
Several of these pieces of surgery, like others dedicated to the health care of the injured in ancient Rome, can be appreciated for the first time by anyone who drops by Granada. This is possible because, for about a month, the Science Park of the Andalusian city has hosted the exhibition “Spanish Military Health, History and contribution to science”, an exhibition with more than 250 pieces of the medical heritage of a nature military that can be visited for a whole year by those interested in the subject.
Roman Military Health
The Spanish Military Health has its origin in Rome. And, being a people that used to spear around the world, they needed a good medical team that could save as many more legionaries from death the better. However, it was necessary to wait until the time of the emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus (in the year 27 BC) to see a true organization dedicated to the recovery of the wounded and sick. Before this leader, those soldiers of Rome who received a cut in battle were transferred and treated in the nearby private houses. There, more with rituals and spells than with surgery, the improvised healers tried to save their lives so that they would make them fight one more day.
The chances of going to the other neighborhood with the uniform on were, therefore, rather high. Everything changed with the creation of a professional health organization in the time of Augustus. This was even preventive since some military doctors (most of whom based their knowledge on ancient Greece and experimentation) were commissioned to perform a medical examination on any candidate to become a member of the Legion. Specifically, they were looking for healthy, strong men who were not prone to illness. While all this was going on, doctors were professionalizing and gaining experience with incredible speed. The reason was simple, the Emperor knew the importance of his preparation and had no problem opening the bag to reward his doctors with money, land, and titles. So it was not uncommon for little students to dream of becoming doctors when they lifted two feet off the ground.
The first field hospitals
However, in case all that failed (or in case his legionaries were injured by the occasional barbarian armed with a vulgar axe), the one who was the first Emperor of the Roman Empire created his first centers of attention for soldiers. «The great importance that, since Augustus, the Roman administration granted to the recovery of the wounded and sick was evident in the monumentality and efficiency of its“ valetudinarian ”(field hospitals always located within the large camps of each legion, which, in turn, they were very close to the limes – a set of walls and watchtowers that defended the Empire from sudden enemy attacks says Luis Monteagudo Garcia, former director of the Archaeological Museum of La Coruna, Surgery in the Empire Roman”.
These first hospitals were military and had rooms for the wounded, as well as an operating room in which to intervene with soldiers in the middle of a fight. In turn, and as Monteagudo points out, they were incredibly modern, Characteristics are the sick rooms, each of which had a common door, a hallway, and a central pantry; From the hallway, the two rooms were passed through doors, to the right and left. Thus it was possible to ventilate without generating currents.
However, in case all that failed (or in case his legionaries were injured by the occasional barbarian armed with a vulgar ax), the one who was the first Emperor of the Roman Empire created his first centers of attention for soldiers. The great importance that, since Augustus, the Roman administration granted to the recovery of the wounded and sick was evident in the monumentality and efficiency of its“ valetudinarian ”(field hospitals always located within the large camps of each legion, which, in turn, they were very close to the limes – a set of walls and watchtowers that defended the Empire from sudden enemy attacks-) says Luis Monteagudo García, former director of the Archaeological Museum of La Coruña, in his dossier Surgery in the Empire Roman”.
These first hospitals were military and had rooms for the wounded, as well as an operating room in which to intervene with soldiers in the middle of a fight. In turn, and as Monteagudo points out, they were incredibly modern. Characteristics are the sick rooms, each of which had a common door, a hallway, and a central pantry; From the hallway, the two rooms were passed through doors, to the right and left. Thus it was possible to ventilate without generating currents.In turn, Roman doctors were the first to bet on creating military hospitals in which to better treat the wounded.
They were the creators of the“ Valetudinarium ”, the antecedent of fixed hospitals, in which the sick and wounded were distributed in separate wings and individual rooms. They were also in charge of creating a real system for the evacuation of the wounded in straps. But, probably, the most significant was the creation of a complex health organization, directed by the “Ordinarius” – what today we could call the chief of health – who directed and coordinated everything related to the health of the legions (curiously, We can say that we know the name of the first Hispano-Roman military doctor, who was “Ordinarius” his name was Anicius Ingenuus, points out Quote.
The surgeon’s weapons
Still, despite his enormous number of tasks, the worth of a “Medicus” was proven when hundreds of legionnaires with severed arms, deep ax wounds, or brutal gouges passed through his hands. To treat them, the doctor and surgeon had very advanced tools for the time. “The Roman” Medicus “had a wide range of surgical instruments to treat all kinds of wounds that originated on the battlefield. This therapeutic “arsenal” was more sophisticated than we might think today it had a design that, in essence, is not very different from that used by current surgeons. Thus, practically, the only difference lies in the material with which they were made bronze and iron, in Ancient Rome; surgical steel, today, “adds the expert.
The doctor, in turn, had a large number of instruments with different objectives. Thus, for the so-called “soft surgery”, the main tool of the “Medicus” was the scalpel. «The Roman scalpel consisted of three parts; cutting blade made of steel or steely iron, joint -where the blade was inserted- and two grooves to fix the blade “, points out, in this case, Monteagudo in his work. Among the different scalpels, there were some specifically designed to make so-called exploratory penetrations and even to carry out cataract operations. “The ‘Medicus’ also had: probes, gouges, needles, etc., which were used to cut tissues, extract arrowheads, drain pus, perform curettage “, adds Quote. The “retractor hooks” were another of the elements used for small-caliber surgery. This instrument was widely used in tonsil operations, which were already performed in Roman times.
This is how the doctor Paulus VI explained one of these interventions: «Sitting in the sunlight, the patient is ordered to open his mouth, and while an assistant holds his head and another keeps his tongue low against the lower jaw with a depressor tongue, we take the crochet hook, hook the tonsil and pull with the hook as much as we can without dragging the capsule. Then we cut the amygdala at the root with the scalpel. Finally, these instruments were accompanied by the typical bandages, punches, the suture thread to sew combat wounds, or the papyrus cords to soften fistulas (an abnormal connection between two internal parts of the body).
“Bone surgery” was another of the fields in which the “Medicus” was dedicated and, of course, had several instruments to carry it out. One of their most-used devices was the cylindrical skull trephine, which was used to make holes in the head of the affected person and, later, to be able to remove bone fragments that had been introduced into a wound after a blow to the head. Curiously, to carry out bone operations it was not very advisable to use surgical saws, since they used to be very harmful. Despite this, they were part of the tools of them, as the lead hammer (used together with the trephine to open holes in the skull), the lever or bone elevator (whose function was to extract shards of bone and put these in place after a fracture) and chisels (used to open channels in the bones).
Finally, the surgeon had instruments to remove all kinds of dirt or debris from the wounds. The main tool for this function was the tweezers. Very frequent instrument in the equipment of the ancient doctor. It is used to extract foreign bodies from wounds, to take the gauze and wipe the blood, etc. According to Celso, they were also useful for removing bone chips. “The elasticity of the forceps was caused by the divergence of the two welded branches or by the rapid curvature of a single strap that forms both branches”, highlights the Spanish expert in his dossier on Roman surgery. In full combat, and for centuries, it has always been the soldiers who have managed to make a place for themselves in history by using their rifle, their saber, and their courage. However, behind them, there are other great men without whom war would be impossible. These courageous anonymous heroes are those belonging to the Military Health Corps.
The exhibition, which has opened its doors in the Granada Science Park, intends -among other things- to publicize Military Health and the importance it has had in the history of our country. “We want people to see that they have and have had magnificent professionals at their disposal. For this reason, the exhibition is aimed at the general public and not only at experts and health professionals “, stated the general physician Manuel Guiote Linares in the previous presentation of the exhibition held in Madrid. The event will last for more than a year ( It will be closed in March 2015) and will feature a sample of more than 250 pieces of medical, surgical, pharmaceutical heritage, models, scenographies, paintings, uniforms, and several informative videos that will act as the common thread of the exhibition. All this material will be exhibited in a total of 2,500 square meters and will be divided into four axes related to the history of Military Health.
The exhibition will also have no cost for the visitor greater than that of the entrance to the museum itself and has been prepared with a budget of 300,000 euros. It is a tremendously important event in which the public who goes will be surprised because they are going to see something which, unfortunately, is not very well known. In this way, they will realize that we are putting in value an institution such as the Armed Forces and, within them, the Military Health, which knows how to perfectly fulfill its mission on the battlefield. Furthermore, in Spain it has been decisive from the point of view of the advancement of science and society in general , pointed out Manuel Guiote Linares. The exhibition The visitor can begin their visit by traveling to the birth of the war medicine of our country, which has its origin in Roman times and in the primitive hospitals built in the time of the Catholic Monarchs.
Then, the journey continues through the time of the Enlightenment – and the first universal vaccination expedition – until the 20th century, when blood transfusions began and the first portable X-ray machine was created. There is no one piece better than another. The interest of each depends on the eyes with which you look at it. From the historical point of view, retractors and saws for the amputation of limbs may be very curious, elements that were used with great profusion and that saved many lives. Napoleon’s surgeon, for example, performed more than 200 inferior amputations on the battlefield with a survival rate of over 70%. It is a technique that can attract a lot of attention but that has helped many soldiers ”, concluded the soldier.