Probably what ought to be considered the most important work of the French surgeons of the Middle Ages has been quite misunderstood until recent years. In his paper on '4 The Origin of Syphilis," at the Seventeenth International Congress of Medicine (London, 1913), Professor Karl Slidhoff of Leipzig (see Transactions) reviewed the use of mercury in the form of mercurial ointment during the later Middle Ages, and the reputation that it had acquired for the cure of ulcers, skin eruptions of various kinds, and other distinctly objective lesions. It is perfectly clear now that the success of this form of therapy was due to the fact that syphilis was being treated. The French surgeons of the South of France developed the empiric discovery of the value of this remedy, the first hint of which had probably come to them from the Italians. It is one of the few specifics in the history of medicine. Needless to say, it is still with us, and still the accepted medication in spite, as Professor Siidhoff notes, of the often-attempted replacement of it down the centuries by some form or other of arsenic treatment, though this has always been afterwards abandoned, and it would seem as though our generation might furnish another instance of the triumph of the medieval mercurial treatment over arsenic.
The real reason then, it would seem, why syphilis came to be called the morbus Gallicus, or French Disease, was because when knowledge of its differential diagnosis was generalized, physicians at the same time learned of the remedy which could be so successfully employed for its treatment, the value of which had been determined as the result of the careful observations of the surgeons of South France. It is probable, as I have said, that the original idea for this form of treatment came from the Italian surgical traditions brought over from Italy by Lanfranc and his contemporaries at the end of the thirteenth century. There can be no doubt at all, however, of the power of clinical observation of the medieval surgeons who gave us this wonderful advance in therapeutics.
The most distinguished pupil of Guy de Chauliac was Pietro d'Argelata, who died about 1423 as a professor at Bologna, but whose textbook, " The Cirurgia," was among the first of medical books to be printed at Venice in 1480. His teaching was still a living force at that time, and it is evident that he had attracted wide attention in his own generation. He taught the dry treatment of wounds, suggesting various powders to be employed on them, and gave his experience with sutures and drainage tubes in wounds.
Ligatures are often supposed to have been invented much later. They have been attributed to Ambroise Pare and other surgeons of the Renaissance period, but were probably used at many times during the Middle Ages, and had been invented and frequently employed by the Greeks. They invariably went out of use after a time, however, and had to be reinvented. As I said in " Old-Time Makers of Medicine " :
"It is hard to understand how so useful an auxiliary to the surgeon as the ligature—it seems indispensable to us—could possibly be allowed to go out of use and even be forgotten. It will not be difficult, however, for anyone who recalls the conditions that obtained in old-time surgery to understand the succession of events. The ligature is a most satisfying immediate resource in stopping bleeding from an artery, but a septic ligature inevitably causes suppuration, and almost inevitably leads to secondary haemorrhage. In the old days of septic surgery, secondary haemorrhage was the surgeon's greatest and most dreaded bane. Some time from the fifth to the ninth day a septic ligature came away under conditions such that inflammatory disturbance had prevented sealing of the vessel. If the vessel was large, the haemorrhage was fast and furious, and the patient died in a few minutes. After a surgeon had had a few deaths of this kind he dreaded the ligature.
" Eventually he abandoned its use, and took kindly even to such methods as the actual cautery, red-hot knives for amputations and the like, that would sear the surfaces of tissues, and the bloodvessels, and not give rise to secondary haemorrhage. A little later, however, someone not familiar with the secondary risks would reinvent the ligature. If he were cleanly in his methods, and, above all, if he were doing his work in a new hospital, the ligature worked very well for a while. If not, it soon fell into innocuous desuetude again. In any case, it was only a question of time until it would be abandoned".
There was at least one, and probably a number of English surgeons who were doing excellent work in the latter part of the Middle Ages, but John of Ardern wrote a book which has come down to us, and from him we may judge the character of his contemporaries. He was educated at Mont-pellier, and practised surgery for a time in France. About the middle of the fourteenth century, according to Pagel, he went back to his native land and settled for some twenty years at Newark in Nottinghamshire; and for nearly thirty years longer, until near the end of the century, practised in London. Ardern's speciality was diseases of the rectum, but he made special studies in the treatment of fistulas everywhere in the body. He was an expert operator, and seems to have had excellent success in this field. He made careful statistics of his cases, and was quite as proud as any modern surgeon of the large numbers that he had operated on, which he gives very exactly. He was the inventor of some new instruments and of a clyster apparatus. We know something also about his fees, and there is no doubt that he obtained quite as good fees in proportion to the value of money as even any specialist of the modern time.
Ardern gives many evidences of his power of clinical observation, and incidentally makes it very clear that the eyes of the men of his time were not so held from seeing the things that lay before them as is often assumed. Mr. D'Arcy Power, in the paper on " The Lesser Writings of John Ardern " which he read before the section on the History of Medicine at the Seventeenth International Congress (see Transactions), has quoted a series of paragraphs from Ardern which make it very clear how accurate an observer this fourteenth-century Englishman was. Here, for instance, is his description of epidemic sore throat in his time, probably diphtheria, for the death within five days through strangling would seem to point to this :