Dissecting the God Complex


In the 18th and early 19th centuries, surgery was part of a very different world; surgeons didn’t wash their hands, operated without anaesthetic, and were paid less than the hospital’s “Chief Bug Catcher” (who cleaned lice from the mattresses). But despite the seemingly vast gap between early surgery and modern surgery, the history of surgery is crucial to understanding current day problems. For example, a feature of early modern surgery was the mistreatment of cadavers by surgical students. Considering the circumstances of the time, the treatment of cadavers as objects was almost necessary, as surgeons had to desensitize themselves to the screams and struggles of patients on their operating tables. However, a disconnection between surgeons and patients still persists, despite the changed circumstances, manifesting in the present as clinical detachment. This is just one of the many ways in which the effects of surgery’s past manifests in the current culture of surgery, in the attitudes of the public towards surgeons, and in the fears of patients. Dr Una McIlvenna and Dr Kate Irving will help us to understand the implications of the history of surgery, in order to show us how we can move forward into the future.


Dr Una McIlvenna

Dr Una McIlvenna is Hansen Lecturer in History at the University of Melbourne. She is a specialist on the social and cultural history of early modern Europe, in particular the history of crime and punishment, and the tradition of singing the news. She has published multiple articles on execution ballads and news-singing. She was invited by one of her students on her subject Crime, Punishment and Media 1500-1800 to share her expertise with medical students on the history of surgery and its connection with punishment, especially the use of criminal corpses for dissection.

Dr Kate Irving 

Kate Irving is a doctor and historian with a special interest in childhood disability. She did her PhD in the History of Medicine at Yale University, exploring the origins of institutional care for children with disability. She did her paediatric training in Melbourne, and currently works as the Neuromuscular Fellow in the Department of Neurology at the Royal Children’s Hospital.