Surgery in ancient times

Especially the Dutch branch of the Von/Van Halem family has had many member involved in 17th and 18th century surgery (see also the article Dutch branche and German branches). At that time, the activities associated with surgery were closely related to activities of a barber (haircutter) and a wigmaker. Dutch names of these activities were: barbier, chirurgijn, breuksnijder, heelmeester, kapper, pruikenmaker. In the late 18th century, a seperate group of medical professionals developed, based more on the theories of the human body (medicine) and less on practical abilities.

The barber-pole with red-white windings refer to blood (red) and medical practice (symbolized by white as the colour of medical garment) with a cotton-wool  plug at the top (to stop bleeding)

Johann Gerhard ( *1684 Oldenburg  BRD + 1760 Esens BRD) was a paruquier or wigmaker (pruikenmaker in Dutch) at the court of the Dukes of Oldenburg in Esens (BRD). His son Gerhard Wilhelm (Gerrit Willem I) (*1711 Aurich BDR + 1767 Haarlem NL) was a barber in Holland and was later admitted to the guild of chartered surgeons in that town. His son, Gerard Wilhelm II (* 1729 Aurich BDR + 1770 Noord-Polsbroek/Lopik NL) became surgeon (3rd rank) on a VOC vessel (Dutch Asiatic Shipping), named Baarzande and bound for Batavia (today Djakarta, the capital of Indonesia) in 1753. To his credit he survived that voyage, in days when almost 50% of those who embarked did not return.

After his return, Gerrit Willem II established a business in Noord Polsbroek (nowadays: Lopik in central Holland, near Utrecht).  As we can see, he was the last of 4 generations involved in surgery, barbers and peruquenmachers (wigmakers).
He married  Zwaantje van Beek and became the ancestor of all (origionally) Dutch Van Halem family members.

To summarize:

  1. Johann Gerhard von Halem was a wigmaker in Esens at the court of Oldenburg
  2. His son Gerhard Wilhelm von Halem was a barber, later surgeon in Haarlem
  3. The son of Gerhard Wilhelm (renamed  Gerrit Willem, in Dutch), being Gerrit Willem II was a surgeon in the V.O.C. (3rd rank) and later in the neighborhood of Utrecht in Holland

Another family member Johann Gerhard von Halem (*1674 Jever + 1735 Amsterdam) was a succesfull surgeon in Zaandam and Amsterdam. He was a member of the German branch.

Daily practice

The surgeon was below the rank of the university doctor (late 18th century). At sea the surgeon was in charge of treating wounds (including those as a result of corporal punishment) and sickness. Amputation of arms and legs were common practices (sealing  the wound with pitch). Surgery was often accompanied  by fever, which was treated by means of bleedletting.

Anatomy was a science that was developing at the time at the university. Note the famous painting of Rembrandt: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. Anatomical knowlegde was gained through the analysis of decomposing bodies of executed criminals.

The chirurgicus at work: notice the shaving-dish on the floor

Surgery made use of an impressive collection of instruments


Amputation of a leg (begin 17th century)

Rembrandt van Rijn: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp

Altough the paractice of surgery was not to modern standards, they exercised professional control through guilds, based on experience and technical competence.

In the event that university doctors were available (ashore and only in bigger cities at the end of the 18th century), the surgeon worked closely with the doctors. Both university doctors and surgeons, had competion from quacks:  poisoner, piss observers, magicians to name a few.

Jan Steen:  A quack just  removed a stone (out of kidney?) A piss observer in ancient times

In the 19th century, many mid-sized towns in Holland had a surgeon. Surgeons in the bigger cities worked in cooperation with university doctors; in the country the surgeon was more independent.

The surgeons on board of a VOC vessel earned some extra money on board treating the desease of Venus (venereal desease) or the desease of Mars (wounds as a result of fighting). These treatments were paid for by the victims themselves. After a journey to the Indies and some basic studies, one could buy a surgeons practice in a little village and be known as a  Master Surgeon.


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