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Dr. Blains Hospital - burned down in 2008 Blaine Hospital, Willard, OH

If you have ever had surgery, you many not recall many of the details of the procedure. The ones that stand out for me are the rigorous antiseptic scrubbing down by the nurses, the pre-anesthetic medication relaxing my body, the glaring lights of the cold operating room, and the slow return to consciousness in a well-staffed recovery room.

Constrast that with surgical procedures in the 1800s in the United States. Since the success rate was very low, surgeries were performed only as a last resort. With no numbing devices other than perhaps hypnotism or a cloth saturated with whiskey clenched in the jaw, the unbathed patient was held down on the operating table by one or two strong men. The surgeon was often one of a small number of doctors who had good hand coordination along with steel nerves. But he probably didn’t wash his hands before  he began because there was no understanding yet of germs and how they are spread. No attempt was made to control the flow of fluids once the skin was pierced. In the case of surgeries like cesarean section, the uterine cavity was not even stitched closed, leading to complications during the healing process.

Joseph Lister, an English surgeon, promoted the use of antiseptics in surgery beginning in 1865, but his method was not completely adopted in the U.S. until the 1890s. Even though the first surgery using ether was performed in 1842 in Georgia, over thirty years passed before anesthesia came into general use in America. Many physicians refused to use it because to them it brought the patient too close to death. Others rejected it because they were convinced that pain was part of the healing process, especially in childbirth. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the U. S. began to emerge as a leader in medicine.

It was during that time that my great-grandfather, Harry G. Blaine, pursued his dream of opening a hospital in Willard, Ohio, where he could specialize in surgery. In preparation, he went to Europe in the spring of 1914 to take a post-graduate course in clinical surgery at the University of London. The Blaine Hospital opened in 1915, with Dr. Blaine as the Surgeon in Charge. In a booklet describing the hospital, Dr. Blaine made sure to mention that out of 628 operations performed, there were only 4 deaths, a mortality rate lower than many hospitals of the time. Some of the most common surgeries listed included appendectomies, tonsillectomies, tooth extractions, and repairs of a variety of abscesses and fractures, hemorrhoids, and lacerations from labor.

With x-ray machines, electrical devices, antiseptic procedures, anesthesia, and sterilizers all in place, surgery in the U. S. had finally  made the transition from a bungling, desperate procedure to a successful tool for the medical profession.


Sources:  Duffy, John. From Humors to Medical Science: A History of American Medicine, 2nd Ed. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Ludmerer, Kenneth M. Learning to Heal: The Development of American Medical Education. Basic Books, Inc., 1985.