The barber-surgeon is a tradition of the middle ages. The barber-surgeon was one of the most common medical practitioners of medieval Europe – generally charged with looking after soldiers during or after a battle. In this era surgery was not generally conducted by physicians. It was done by barbers–who of course had a sharp-bladed razor as an indispensable tool of their profession. This practitioner was known as the barber-surgeon.
In the Middle Ages in Europe the barber-surgeon would be expected to do anything from cutting hair to amputating limbs. It is rather obvious that the surgery at the time was quite high in mortality due to loss of blood and infection. Doctors of the Middle Ages thought that taking blood would help cure the patient of sickness so the barber would apply leeches to the patient. This is known as the practice of blood letting and was widely popular at that time.
Physicians tended to be academics, working in universities, and mostly dealt with patients as an observer or a consultant. They considered surgery to be beneath them. Also during that time due to religious and sanitary monastic regulations, among other things Monks had to be bled regularly. This created a market for barbers because each monastery had to either train or hire a barber.
These barbers would perform bloodletting and other minor surgeries like pulling teeth or creating ointments. The first barber-surgeon to be recognized as such worked in monasteries around 1000 A.D. Because physicians performed surgery so rarely, the Middle Ages saw a proliferation of barber surgeons, among other medical “paraprofessionals”.
The barber-surgeon was a medical practitioner in medieval Europe who, unlike many doctors of the time, performed surgery, often on the war wounded. The barber surgeon would normally learn his trade as an apprentice to a more experienced colleague. Many would have no formal learning, and were often illiterate.
The red, white and blue pole which is still used to identify a barber’s shop was originally intended to reflect the blood and napkins used to clean up during bloodletting. This treatment was one of the main tasks of the barber-surgeon. From about 1000 AD to well into the 1800s, they were not just hair cutters but well-known surgeons. as well as extracting teeth, performing enemas, selling medicines, performing surgery and, of course, cutting hair.
It was in Europe that saw the barber-surgeon as the most organized in the world. In the 1500s, Henry VIII even grouped the barber-surgeon into guilds and forced them to distinguish themselves from regular surgeons. But barbers became surgeons in different cultures and on different continents. Buddhist monks used barbers as simple surgeons. Egyptian barbers examined and cleaned teeth. Chinese barbers castrated eunuchs – a practice that was emulated in the middle ages when castrati singers were popular.
It was only in the 1800s that dentists, barbers, and surgeons, were separated as professions. For some time, surgery was thought of as a rather low profession among doctors, since barbers shared it medical men, and so people veered away from it as a subject. As knowledge of anatomy and medical procedure became more precise, more patients began surviving more and more elaborate and dramatic surgeries. As fewer barbers were called upon to perform surgery, that aspect of the profession died out. The last barber-surgeon died in the 1820s.