Thinking about surgery in the 1800’s, especially through the lens of anesthesia, is frightening. Though the tools were crude and the anesthetics sparse and not fully understood, it was those early efforts that lead to the amazing technology we posses today. Recently, we were given a more vivid look into the surgical past with the discovery of the earliest known footage of surgery and use of anesthetics, activities for which we had only still photos.
The film was shot in 1899 and depicts Argentine surgeon Alejandro Posadas (1870–1902) performing a surgery and being assisted by medical students. One of Posadas’s medical assistants, Rodolfo Santiago Roccatagliata, is seen administering anesthesia by sporadically dripping it from a bottle into a mask placed over the patient’s face. It is likely that chloroform, a chemical widely used by medical professionals in the Americas during that time period, was the anesthetic Roccatagliata is seen dripping into the mask—revolutionary medical technology in the 19th century.
The operation being performed is the removal of a lung cyst. None of the doctors are wearing gloves or masks and there seems to be no method of cleaning up blood except with rags. The scene is unthinkably far from later standards of sterilization. The procedure took place at the Hospital de Clínicas in Buenos Aires. NOTE: This footage, shot in 1899, while grainy, is still gory and not recommended for those outside of the medical industry who are faint of heart. However, it is an astonishing look into an era of medicine that is rarely seen in motion.
Watch the full procedure at your own discretion here.