A barber surgeon was a person who could perform minor surgical procedures such as bloodletting, cupping therapy or pulling teeth. Barbers could also bathe, cut hair, shave or trim facial hair, and give enemas. The surgeon came with the army at war but could be used by individuals in peacetime.
The barber surgeon, one of the most common European medical practitioners of the Middle Ages, was generally charged with caring for soldiers during and after battle. In this era, surgerywas seldom conducted by physicians, but instead by barbers, who, in having razors indispensable to their trade, were called upon for numerous tasks ranging from cutting hair to amputating limbs.
In this period, surgical mortality was very high, due to blood loss and infection. Yet since doctors thought that blood letting treated illness, barbers also applied leeches. Meanwhile, physicians considered themselves to be above surgery. Physicians mostly observed surgical patients and offered consulting, but otherwise often chose academia, working in universities, or chose residence in castles where they treated the wealthy.
Formal recognition of their skills (in England at least) goes back to 1540, when the Fellowship of Surgeons (who existed as a distinct profession but were not „Doctors/Physicians” for reasons including that, as a trade, they were trained by apprenticeship rather than academically) merged with the Company of Barbers, a London livery company, to form the Company of Barber-Surgeons. However, the trade was gradually put under pressure by the medical profession and in 1745, the surgeons split from the Barbers’ Company (which still exists) to form the Company of Surgeons. In 1800 a Royal Charter was granted to this company and the Royal College of Surgeons in London came into being (later it was renamed to cover all of England — equivalent colleges exist for Scotland and Ireland as well as many of the old UK colonies, e.g., Canada).
Few traces of barbers’ links with the surgical side of the medical profession remain. One is the traditional red and white barber’s pole, or a modified instrument from a blacksmith, which is said to represent the blood and bandages associated with their older role. Another link is the British use of the title „Mr” rather than „Dr” by surgeons (when they become qualified as surgeons by, e.g., the award of an MRCS or FRCS diploma). This dates back to the days when surgeons did not have a university education (let alone a doctorate); this link with the past is retained despite the fact that all surgeons now have to gain a basic medical degree and doctorate (as well as undergoing several more years training in surgery). They no longer perform haircuts, a task the barbers have retained.
The Fellowship of Surgeons merged with the Barbers’ Company in 1540, forming the Company of Barbers and Surgeons, but after the rising professionalism of the trade broke away in 1745 to form what would become the Royal College of Surgeons.
The Company no longer retains an association with the hairdressing profession, and principally acts as a charitable institution for medical and surgical causes. In modern times, between one-third and one-half of the Company’s liverymen are surgeons, dentists or other medical practitioners.
The first mention of the Barbers’ Company occurs in 1308, when Richard le Barbour was elected by the Court of Aldermen to keep order amongst his fellows. Barbers originally aided monks, who were at the time the traditional practitioners of medicine and surgery, because Papal decrees prohibited members of religious orders themselves from spilling blood. In addition to haircutting, hairdressing, and shaving, barbers performed surgery: neck manipulation; cleansing of ears and scalp; draining/lancing of boils, fistulae, and cysts with wicks; bloodletting and leeching; fire cupping; enemas; and the extraction of teeth.
Soon surgeons with little expertise in the haircutting and shaving arts of the barbers began to join the Company, but in 1368, the surgeons were allowed to form their own, unincorporated Fellowship or Guild. However, the Barbers’ Guild retained the power to oversee surgical practices in London. The Barbers’ Guild continued this oversight after it became, by Royal Charter of 1462, a Company.
The Fellowship of Surgeons merged with the Barbers’ Company in 1540 by Act of Parliament to form the Company of Barbers and Surgeons. The Act specified that no surgeon could cut hair or shave another, and that no barber could practice surgery; the only common activity was to be the extraction of teeth. The barber pole, featuring red and white spiralling stripes, indicated the two crafts (surgery in red and barbering in white). Barbers received higher pay than surgeons until surgeons were entered into British war ships during naval wars.
The first Master of the Company of Barbers and Surgeons was the superintendent of St Bartholomew’s Hospital and royal physician, Thomas Vicary. The presentation of the charter is the subject of a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, in the collection of the Barbers’ Company.
However, with the rising professionalism of surgery, in 1745 the surgeons broke away from the barbers to form the Company of Surgeons, which became the Royal College of Surgeons in 1800.
The Company no longer retains an association with the hairdressing profession. It does however retain its links with surgery, principally acting as a charitable institution to the benefit of medical and surgical causes. In modern times, between one-third and one-half of the Company’s liverymen are surgeons, dentists or other medical practitioners.[2
Barber-Surgeons’ Hall and Arms
After the licensing of dissection in 1540, public demonstrations took place four times a year in the Great Hall of Barber-Surgeons’ Hall – with a crowd surrounding a table. Attendance was compulsory for all ‘free’ surgeons. The dissected corpses were buried in the churchyard of St Olave’s, Silver Street. By 1568, the Court of Assistants of the Company ordered wooden raised seating to be erected in the Hall during anatomies. By the 17th century, travellers noted that the universities at Padua and Leiden possessed purpose-built anatomical theatres. Inigo Jones was commissioned to design and build one for the Surgeon-Barbers, but died (1652) before it was finished. The work was completed by John Webb in 1636.
The anatomy theatre was the only Company building to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666. The second Hall was designed by Edward Jarman, whose plan provided a courtyard, with the main part of the Hall on its west side again using bastion 13 of the Roman wall. The buildings remained substantially the same until 1784 when the anatomy theatre was demolished to make way for housing. In 1869, economic constraint necessitated the leasing of the dining hall and kitchen areas for warehouse use, the Company retaining little more than an entrance lobby and Court room (which became the new dining hall) on the ground floor, and a staircase leading to a committee room and accommodation for the Beadle.
On the night of 24 August 1940 the second hall and its environs were slightly damaged by a high explosive bomb (the first to fall on London in the Second World War) but on the night of 29 December 1940 the Hall and surrounding area were almost totally destroyed by incendiary bombs which started fires that raged for three days. On 13 May 1969 the current Hall was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
With the merger of the Barbers’ Company and Surgeons’ Fellowship in 1540 to become the Company of Barbers and Surgeons, the Hall was called Barber-Surgeons’ Hall – a name that continues despite the fact that the Company is once again the Barbers’ Company since the secession of the surgeons.
Similarly, the arms of the present-day Company continue to be those granted in 1569 after the merger: a quartered combination of the arms of the Barbers’ Company (granted 1451, with fleams – 1st and 3rd quarters) and the badge of the Fellowship of Surgeons (1492, a crowned rose on a ‘spatter’ (or spatula) – 2nd and 4th quarters).
- The crest is an opinicus – an English heraldic variation of griffin.
- The supporters are collared (by a crown) and chained lynxes – presumably suggesting the keenness of vision necessary for surgery.
- The motto is De Praescientia Dei (Latin for From/through the Foreknowledge of God) – possibly referring to the uncertain outcomes of the surgeon’s attention which, good or bad, were attributed to God.