Surgery, Science and Society since 1750 - HIST6076

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Module delivery information

This module is not currently running in 2024 to 2025.


Over the last two centuries, surgery has been radically transformed from a barbaric craft to a precision based science. Aided by new technologies, surgeons pioneered exploration into the body in ways never achieved before and became heroes of the hospital operating theatre and beyond. Historians have called this a surgical revolution. But how revolutionary was it? Did surgeons always get it right? Did new ideas, procedures and technologies immediately replace those that came before them? Is the history of surgery simply a story of continual progress? This module will examine major aspects of surgery from 1750 in order to evaluate the extent to which a 'surgical revolution' took place. Topics to be addressed include the rise of pathological anatomy; dissection and body snatching; anaesthesia; antisepsis and asepsis; vivisection; war; organ transplantation; and keyhole surgery. Adopting a social and cultural approach, the module will examine these topics in line with several key themes: the surgical profession, masculinity and heroism; patients, ethics and the body; technologies and techniques; and the sciences of pathology and physiology. The module will also explore the dissemination of surgical history today to public audiences through analyses of museum exhibits.


Contact hours

Total contact hours = 30
Total private study hours = 270
Total study hours = 300

Method of assessment

Main assessment methods:

Essay (3,000 words) (60%)
Presentation plus general seminar performance (20 minutes) (20%)
Critical evaluation (2,500 words) (20%)

Reassessment methods:
1 x 3,000-word essay

Indicative reading

Indicative Reading List:

Lawrence, C. (ed., 1992) Medical Theory, Surgical Practice: Studies in the History of Surgery, London and New York: Routledge
Löwy, I. (2009) Preventative Strikes: Women, Precancer, and Prophylactic Surgery, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Richardson, R. (2001) Death, Dissection and the Destitute, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Schlich, T. (2010) The Origins of Organ Transplantation: Surgery and Laboratory Science, 1880s-1930s, Rochester, NY: The University of Rochester Press
Schlich, T. (2002) Surgery, Science and Industry: A Revolution in Fracture Care, 1950s-1990s, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Schlich, T. and C. Crenner (2016) Beyond Innovation: Historical Perspectives of Technological Change in Modern Surgery, Rochester, NY: The University of Rochester Press
Wangensteen, O. H and S. D., Wangensteen (1978) The Rise of Surgery. From Empiric Craft to Scientific Discipline, Folkstone: Dawson

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

The intended subject specific learning outcomes.
On successfully completing the module students will be able to:

1 Analyse the concept of a 'surgical revolution' as it developed in Europe and North America from the late eighteenth century
2 Demonstrate a knowledge and critical understanding of the continuities and changes to surgery from 1750 and their place within the history of medicine
3 Demonstrate a knowledge and critical understanding of different historical approaches to surgery, including those from the history of medicine and social and cultural history
4 Critically engage in key historiographical debates in the medical history and social and cultural history fields, applying the concepts and principles of the historical study of surgery to the relevant context.
5 Analyse the public dissemination of surgical history to public audiences

The intended generic learning outcomes.
On successfully completing the module students will be able to:

1 Ability to communicate effectively to using a variety of methods
2 Critically engage in key debates, applying the concepts and principles of study to the relevant context
3 Make effective use of relevant sources


  1. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  2. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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