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The history of documented surgical procedures begins in Neolithic times with the use of flint scrapers and, currently, progressed to surgical use of robots to help eliminate contamination. But, surgical progress took on new dimensions mainly in the 1800s, when the use of general anesthesia and sterile surgery techniques enabled more surgical successes. Without those advancements, heart transplants and cosmetic surgery might remain dreams rather than realities.
The following list of ten most famous surgeries of all time is listed from the earliest known procedure to current robotics. This list depicts a mini-timeline of the successes and mistakes (which seem glaring when conducted on celebrities) that have formed what is perceived today as modern surgery.
- Trepanation (or Trephination): Noted as the earliest form of surgical operation, this procedure dates to Neolithic times when flint scrapers were used to cut circular holes in a living person’s skull. Hundreds of trephined skulls have been found the world over and many show bone regrowth, which indicates a successful operation. It is unknown why these operations were performed during ancient times, but the procedure is used today to treat health problems related to intracranial diseases.
- First Appendectomy: Although an appendectomy — or removal of the appendix — is a common procedure today, the first appendectomy reportedly was performed in 1735 without anesthesia. The next fully recorded appendectomy occurred a century later, when English surgeon H. Hancock performed and appendectomy on a patient with acute appendicitis. An inflamed appendix will likely burst if not removed, but it is now recognized that many cases can resolve when treated non-operatively.
- Lord Nelson’s Arm (or lack thereof): Although amputation, or the partial or full removal of a limb, has a long history, perhaps the most famous amputation of all time was that of Lord Horatio Nelson’s arm. Lord Nelson was hit in the right arm by a musket ball shortly after stepping ashore on the Spanish island of Tenerife in July 1797. After unsuccessfully trying to save his arm, surgeons removed it on August 1, and Nelson resumed issuing orders to his men a mere thirty minutes after that surgery.
- First General Anesthesia: Although general anesthesia was not used in full force until surgeons used it on the battlefields of America during the Civil War (1861-1865), it is well known that a Japanese physician, Seishu Hanaoka (shown here), used anesthesia on a sixty-year-old woman to excise a breast cancer in 1804. Today, the mortality rate for general anesthesia is about three to five deaths per million anesthetic administrations. Mortality rates are most commonly related to surgical factors or preexisting medical conditions.
- Blood Transfusions: Surgeon James Blundell created a huge breakthrough in surgical techniques when he first provided blog to women who had massive hemorrhages after childbirth in the early 19th century. While the practice fell out of favor when other patients died, Karl Landsteiner discovered during the early 20th century that the reason behind these deaths was the lack of blood typing into groups O, A, B and AB. By the 1930s, blood was separated into plasma and red blood cells, which could then be stored for long periods of time. The first blood banks were established during World War II.
- The First Sterile Surgery: Joseph Lister read an article written by chemist Louis Pasteur that suggested rotting and fermentation could occur if micro-organisms were present. In 1867, Lister tried surgery with a treatment of carbolic acid solution to eliminate those micro-organisms (germs) and found the results remarkably successful in eliminating infection. He also made surgeons wear clean gloves and wash their hands before and after surgery. His methods were the foundations of the then-new “germ theory” which led to sterile surgeries worldwide. Listerine mouthwash was named in honor of this man’s work in antisepsis.
- First Heart Transplant: The thought of transplanting a good heart for a bad one was not new when South African surgeon, Christiaan Neethling Barnard (pictured here), conducted the first heart transplant on Lewis Washkansky on 3 December 1967. Records of transplanting a heart were found in documents as early as 400 AD in China. While Barnard’s surgery was a success, Washkansky died eighteen days after surgery at age fifty-three from double pneumonia.
- Michael Jackson’s Face: Through a series of plastic surgeries that occurred between 1984 and 2004, this famous pop singer altered his nose, his skin color and his entire appearance several times over. It was difficult not to notice the transformations in this highly public figure. Despite his obviously altered look, the singer only ever admitted to two nose jobs and blamed his progressively paler skin on the condition, vitiligo. His cosmetic surgeries helped people to question the connections between plastic surgery and mental and emotional health issues.
- Julie Andrews’ Throat: Millions of fans were heartbroken to learn that a botched throat surgery in 1997 prevented this diva from singing. However, she discovered a new “sing-speak” technique and plans to perform at her first concert since her surgery this next summer in London. Andrews filed a malpractice suit against her surgeon in 1999, providing a highlighted case of health practices that often are less than satisfactory, even for celebrities and the wealthy.
- Robotic Surgery: In May 1998, Dr. Friedrich-Wilhelm Mohr performed the first robot-assisted heart bypass, using the DaVinci robot at the Leipzig Heart Centre in Germany. This robot has four arms, which are manipulated remotely by a surgeon. These arms allow for more precise movements, less contamination and less invasive surgical methods. However, the success of this procedure still depends upon the surgeon’s ability for preciseness and ability to use the robot.